As a writer, I talk to imaginary people all the time. Sometimes, they talk back, and those times tend to be when the words flow best. I’ve alluded to it a couple of times in this little “Countdown to NaNoWriMo” series already, but it’s often not me who decides what a given character is going to do in the stories I write. The characters frequently tell me. Or at least, the more I write about a character, the more they end up taking over the narrative and twisting it to their own ends.
I’ve spoken to other writers (especially the super friendly Richmond WriMos folks), and find that I’m not alone in having my characters wrest the story from my grasp. Sometimes that wresting can be surprising in the forms it takes. As an example, in my superhero story I was writing for my 2012 NaNo, I had a character, Andrew Bernstein who was a college professor at Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas before his powers (telepathy) were awoken by a traumatic event. Originally, I had visualized him as the slightly older mentor figure in my core ensemble, there to provide much of the exposition. Eventually, once I’d found Andrew’s voice, I realized that he had to be the villain of the piece and that he had a lot more powers than he was letting on. He ended up becoming the linchpin figure in the conspiracy narrative I was trying to tell, especially when I realized that he could be the biblical Abel who had his first superpower awakened when Cain murdered him.
The idea was too outlandish to really fit what I had written so far, but I did sprinkle hints in there about the truth and left it somewhat ambiguous if the readers figured out the clues. Bernstein became much more of a semi-villainous protagonist and his deeper ties to the government than he was letting on really helped propel the story to 50,000 with the tension and suspicions among the group increasing, and maybe being justified.
Better writers than me have also had characters take over their stories unexpectedly. For example, in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, Samuel Vimes was created as a supporting character to Captain Carrot as a weary embodiment of the status quo. Pratchett clearly had more fun writing Vimes as he took over the main character role in “Guards! Guards!” and has become the star of several subsequent City Watch books.
The same thing happens with other media too. In Happy Days, Arthur ‘Fonzie’ Fonzarelli was envisioned as an incidental supporting character to the two leads, Richie Cunningham and Potsie. Anyone who remembers the show, though, will remember that Fonzie was a de facto lead character not long into the show’s run.
Looking at my 2013 NaNo notes, I’ve seen it starting to happen already on a story I’ve not even written a word of. I have a priestly character very, very loosely based on Thomas Becket. Initially he was going to be part of a framing device for the story, but as I look at my notes for some of the more knotty scene transitions, I can see a way for the characters and plot to move on by using the priestly character, so his role is already expanding beyond the premise. If he ends up being too much fun to write dialogue for, he might take over half the novel, so I’m going to have to be careful.
Do you have any characters that have taken over your stories? Do you listen to them?