Trust your characters

Picture of Jess Sondijk with speeder

(c) Kevin Radthorne

When it comes to writing a novel, I guess I have to admit to being a bit of a pantser. For those not privy to the writing world’s secret slang, being a ‘pantser’ means I plot by the seat of my pants, making it up as I go along. Especially in the first draft phase. Later in the writing process, in the editing stage, I’ll check my plot and make sure it doesn’t have too many coincidences, events totally defying even a reasonable extrapolation of the laws of physics (that’s called magic) or a series of events which just plain couldn’t happen without a time machine.

But in the first draft, the conscious mind concentrates on the fingers forming the words, while the unconscious mind goes walkabout. All well and good, and I’m extremely grateful. I don’t wish to imply I don’t plot at all. Even the most diehard pantser plots a little. It has to happen, or where do you start your journey? Me, I start with characters. Sometimes it’s the hunky hero, sometimes it’s the feisty, kick-ass heroine. The Iron Admiral started with Admiral Saahren, the driven, focused military man of the title who has avoided women to focus on his career, and evolved from there.

Morgan’s Choice was actually an early spin-off from the Iron Admiral. Very early in the process I got to a point where I flung the unfinished draft at the wall, exclaiming, “Boring. Who’d want to read this shit?” At that point, Morgan Selwood, Supertech, cyborg and all woman, sashayed on from stage left and Morgan’s Choice was born. Starheart was the same. I came up with an opening scene – a small time smuggler ship stopped by a battle cruiser and the ensuing encounter between smuggler Jess Sondijk and Admiral Ulric Hudson. Jess Sondijk was blonde and beautiful, all that cliché stuff. Except somewhere along the line it came out Jess was a widow with a fourteen-year-old daughter. Huh? That’s her at left.

So if I ever get stuck on the cosmic journey of creating a novel, a circumstance that some call ‘writer’s block’ and I call running out of ideas, I talk to my characters. Just at the moment my characters are Morgan Selwood and Admiral Ashkar Ravindra in the white corner and Ellen Cruickshank (also a Supertech – but a nasty, devious sheila) in the black corner. Morgan’s old boss, Admiral Makasa, is also hovering around somewhere. He’ll probably do some refereeing. (What do you call that in American?)

I literally sit back, often eyes closed, and ask my characters what they’d do next. “Well, Admiral (I never, never call him Ashkar – only his closest friends get away with that) here we are at <blah>. What do you think about that?” I can see him, standing with his arms folded (if he’s annoyed with me) or sitting bolt upright in his office chair. He’ll fill me in, give me a situation report, maybe share some strategic thoughts. Then Morgan might interrupt, swear a bit. “Oh, FFS, Ashkar. That’s stupid.” Then she’ll explain why and they might argue a bit… And all the while, I’m learning more about them, about their relationship, what drives them, what they would and would not do.

Just about the best piece of advice I’ve read recently about moving along that centre part of your novel where you’ve run out of steam is to talk to your villain. Your heroes can come up against all sorts of obstacles your villain tosses in front of them and you’ll get some fantastic ideas. In my case, Ellen discovers Morgan has reappeared! That could spell disaster to Ellen’s career. What’s she going to do about it? Selwood was supposed to be dead, lost in that accident a couple of years ago. She’s got to find Selwood, get rid of her somehow, consign her to history where she’s supposed to be. Now, in my case, the villain does get some page time, but even if yours doesn’t, it’s a great ploy. Let me tell you, half way through the book, the ending I had envisaged has changed. There may well have to be a Morgan’s Choice 3.

So trust your characters, writers. The almighty subconscious brain knows much, much more about them than you could ever use in a book. Tap into it. If you’d like to call that source your ‘Muse’ – go for it. You have my permission.


About Greta van der Rol

I'm an author of fast-paced, action-adventure novels, mainly space opera - although I've been known to write in other genres. I live not far from the coast in Queensland, Australia and enjoy photography and cooking when I'm not bent over the computer. I have a degree in history and a background in building information systems, both of which go a long way toward helping me in my writing endeavours.

Posted on 17 November 2012, in On writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. Interesting. I do the same thing. Let my characters tell the tale. Sometimes they head off in unexpected directions.

  2. Love the idea! I’m going to try that. I do free writes where I let the characters talk to each other, but maybe I should just lay down, close my eyes and sleep… I mean plot.

  3. I love to do the same thing, but last time, my two heroes kidnapped me, and all of a sudden I found myself 7 miles off the coast of Cape Cod on my way to intercept an arms sale. Then the horny old lady who told me she wanted to be the murderess rescued me, got my feet back on solid ground, and I returned to writing the crime novel I started.

  4. Have a talk with the characters, hmmmm? I’ve tried that, sometimes it works. Sometimes I just start a dialogue between two characters and they tell me all sorts of interesting facts about the story I wasn’t aware of. Helps me see how they see the same event, differently. Sort of Rashomon without the great cinematography.

  5. I’ll confess I’m an inveterate pantser, myself. My steampunk series started as a serial with several characters doing steampunky things that led to one cliffhanger after another. I had a huge, sweeping story arc in mind, but it was really just a sandbox for my characters to play in. I just set them loose to argue with each other and stumble through the plot, such as it was. Now that I’m also writing a more conventional horror novel, I’m using the same technique to build a spontaneous unpredictability into the plot that I would never have hit upon by outlining first and shoehorning my characters into predetermined roles.

  6. I go for a secondary character and give them a line – anything then that seems to lead me back onto the story with the main characters. I use Post It Notes and write five different things that the secondary character could do / see / find / trip over etc – something random and then I use another Post It to note for the heroine and give her an action she might have done to get this reaction, another Post It for the hero etc. and then suddenly a new scene takes hold and I toss the debris away and take the post its I like back to my desk. I also sometimes bash my head on the computer keys but I usually find that this just gives a whole pile gobbleygook to edit.

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