Who is in charge?

Just who is in charge of this monstrosity anyway?

I am winding down on my current work-in-process but last week I hit a small hiccup.

As I have said before (See the blog post, The Process), I am a plotter when it comes to my novels. Not all writers like to work through this method but I cannot imagine creating a 90,000-word book with multiple plotlines without some sort of guide to keep the story on track.

writerI also keep character sketches. The depth of the detail on the bios depends a great deal upon the importance of the characters themselves. The reason is obvious: consistency. How many times have you been watching a movie and suddenly realized the protagonist who was right-handed suddenly switched to holding the gun in his left hand near the end of the film? The same holds true in novels. No author wants to find out their protagonist stares longingly at the love interest with green eyes in chapter two and blue eyes in chapter 30. This practice actually helps me more with side characters who are involved in the plot for two chapters and then go away for ten before returning.

But just because I have a roadmap for my storylines and a relatively detailed character list, that does not mean the items cannot change. In “Dreams of Ivory and Gold,” the character of Morgan changed dramatically. I realized about a third of the way into writing the novel that I had written her too young. She needed to be older for some of her motivations to make sense. But the changes could not just happen to her. That meant Father Greene needed to be older as well since they had been classmates as children. The change dictated movement in her brothers’ ages, the ages of her nieces and nephews, etc.

I also routinely add to or take away from points in the plot either for brevity or to close a gap in the reader’s knowledge of the story or about a character. Sometimes things I had planned just don’t work. Or, even better, sometimes I think of something that had never occurred to me when I was planning.

And that happened to me last week.

I was within six chapters of the end of my WIP, “Reset” (working title), when in the middle of a sentence I stopped typing and stared at my computer screen. My protagonist was in the middle of narrowing down his suspects when I realized I had him taking too big a leap to the final answer. He needed to make the wrong assumption – chase one more red herring, if you will – before he discovered the killer.

And just as importantly, the red herring was right in front of me.

So I wrote in an answer to the question that my protagonist asked, one that I had never imagined until that moment. It added another chapter to the end of the book but it also deepened the growing tension as I built toward the climax. Best of all, it kept the conclusion within the character’s personality, something I had been building with the reader for more than 80,000 words at that point. All of that is good because I was on top of the story and realized it needed to move in a slightly different direction.

But I could not help but wonder about some of my friends who are writers who believe their characters are in charge of the storylines. You see, they believe the writer is only there to put down the words describing the novel unfolding from the characters they created.

I was once in a critique group where a friend started off with this terrific story. She had created deeply flawed characters, multiple plotlines promising a whirlwind of action, and an intriguing main conflict. The first few chapters she turned in for the group to read were amazing.

Then, the wheels started to wobble. Another subplot was followed by still another. Characters diverged even farther apart. On their own, each individual chapter was well-written but the story itself began to careen wildly out of control. At one point another group member and I asked her what was happening to the story and she sheepishly bowed her head. “My characters are going off in crazy directions,” she said. “I don’t know where the story is headed.”

She is not the only writer I have heard say this before. Many times I have heard others announce excitedly that their characters have hijacked the story and found a whole new storyline/direction/ending.

I do not understand that thinking. This author is in charge of the characters he created. That means sticking to the personalities, making plot decisions based upon those bios, but in the end, still in charge of the outcome.

So the next time you are halfway through a book and suddenly find yourself wondering why the plot just veered off in a weird direction, you may have been hijacked by the characters.

And as for my friend who said her characters took control of her plot, he wheels finally fell off her novel. It has been nearly ten years of effort and she has still not finished her book.