The title of this post could be: Who Controls the Characters? Do writers always know what their characters will say and how they will act? Or do writers let the characters dictate their dialog and actions?
This may be a debate between plotters and pantsers (for the uninitiated, authors who write by the seat of their pants). Are plotters more likely to keep their characters on tight leashes, not letting them stray too far from the outline? Are pantsers more likely to let their characters run free to see where they take the story?
Sci-fi author Mike Resnick, in The Science Fiction Professional, is adamant he is the writer, they’re his characters, so he controls them. He also generally puts together a 5000 word outline for a novel and works from that. I consider that a detailed outline, so let’s call him a plotter.
On the other hand, Stephen King, in On Writing, says he likes to see where his characters take him. He never mentions outlining his novels before writing, so let’s call him a pantser.
I fall more on the plotter side of the spectrum. I like to work out the major plot points in my head before starting on a story. This means I mostly control my characters because they need to get me to each of the plot points. I don’t necessarily know exactly what they will say, unless a good piece of dialog comes to mind that I’m able to write down in advance.
Rarely will I start writing and see where my characters take me. Sometimes I’ll work up to as far in a story as I’ve plotted and then stop until I figure out what happens next. More often than not, writing up to that point helps me figure that out, which could be considered letting the characters control the story.
Recently, I was working on a sequel to my first story. The file contained detailed notes on the plot points I’d jotted down over several months as I developed the story in my head. However, while putting the story on the screen, I realized one of the characters would never let the story end how I plotted it. This character altered my story’s ending and in a very dramatic way. Is that me losing control of one of my characters? Maybe, but I liked where this character took the story. And, once again, it reinforced my intrigue about the writing process. It also reconfirmed how fun the writing process can be. Even as a plotter, my own story still can surprise me.
Let me know in the comments how you treat your characters or how they treat you.