Staying True to Your Characters
The very first thing I do when I start plotting a book is to create my characters. It is them, who they are, and what their goals are that will shape the story I’m going to tell. I’m pretty sure I’ve talked about this before on this blog. The importance of knowing your characters cannot be stressed enough.
But sadly, writing a book is never a straight and easy journey.
No, I take that back.
Happily, writing a book is never a straight and easy journey. Things happen… sometimes they are things that you, the author, never anticipated. This is what makes writing so much fun. It’s what makes writing a challenge. It adds a slight touch of the unknown to your story no matter how meticulously you’ve plotted it, there’s always that extra factor that your characters will come alive and they will follow their own hearts whether it’s what you want them to do or not.
The problem may not even be that what the characters do isn’t what you want them to do. You may be perfectly happy with what they do, it’s not what you had anticipated.
Yes, dear friends, my hero has once again shoved my very nicely plotted and tirelessly worked out last third of my novel and knocked it completely off course. The thing is, he did it because he was being true to himself.
You’ve been hearing about how I needed to stop writing my book because my hero was simply too unheroic. Well, now he isn’t any longer. He’s become such a strong character, in fact, that when faced with the situation I put him into, he did something I did not foresee but that was entirely in character.
Now, I could have put a stop to his bad behavior – and it truly was awful behavior by anyone’s standards! (He forced his way into the heroine’s house in the middle of the night, complimented her on her nightgown(!) and then proposed to her! I had not wanted him to propose until the end of the book! And this is most definitely NOT the end of the book. I’ve still got another 25,000 words to write! More has to happen!) But how can I stop a man from following his heart? How can I stop a character from doing what is most natural to them—even if it derails my carefully laid out plans?
I can’t and I shouldn’t.
No, instead I let the character do what he wanted and then worked hard on fixing the fallout from his actions. I’ve had to rework a good bit of the end of my story. And happily, he too realizes that maybe his actions weren’t the best ones to take—remorse can be fun to write too! The funny thing is that it all goes along with what my hero was supposed to have learned through the book (and clearly hasn’t yet, but that doesn’t mean that this can’t be the scene that makes him realize that he needs to change—a mirror moment, if you will).
As I sat in front of my computer screen looking at it in slight horror at what my character had done, I wondered whether I shouldn’t pull him back. Whether I shouldn’t scrap what had just occurred and instead write what I had originally thought he might do.
I couldn’t, though.
I couldn’t because I knew that what he’d just done was what a man like that would have done. I had to stay true to the character. The rest of the story could change, the character could not.
So if your characters go rogue, stop and think about what they’re doing and why. Is there a good reason for their “bad” behavior? Are they staying true to who they are? If so, my advice is to let them. Let them do what they feel is best. Afterward, they can either feel remorse for what they’ve done and you can put your story back on track, or you can go forward and change what you had planned to be in line with the new reality.
The most important thing is that you do what feels right. Do what keeps the character being true to themselves. If you don’t you’re more than likely to lose the reader. They’ll be knocked out of the story by the improbability of the character’s actions. You don’t want that. You cannot risk losing your reader’s trust.
So, no matter where you are in the writing process, make sure you know and understand your characters. Make sure they are truly well fleshed out people as real as you can make them. They need to take on a life of their own and you need to let them.