Monday, June 13, 2011

When a Character "Takes Over"

by Jamie Freveletti

When I first started writing I used to sit in conferences rolling my eyes when a writer talked about character taking over the plot line and acting in unpredictable ways. I'd think, "are these people crazy? Their character isn't real!"

Until it happened to me.

It first happened in a manuscript that I still have on shelf--my first completed novel--called Black Money. One of the characters was supposed to be a crazy, fun and irresponsible musician. In every scene where I expected to write a nutty response to a situation, this character was the voice of reason. I kept trying to make him insouciant, but I continued writing sane. Finally I bowed to whatever my subconscious wanted and wrote the character as if he wore a suit to work, did the right thing and just happened to be employed in a band. The juxtaposition worked. He ended up being one of the best characters in an otherwise uneven piece.(Black Money is staying on the shelf because the occasional flashes of brilliance are not enough to save the first draft. It needs a rewrite, which I simply don't have the time to do right now).

The phenomenon of a character taking off in another direction just happened again in my latest manuscript. There I was, minding my own business, and everything started to go haywire. This time I have no excuse. I saw it happening and just leaned into the change. Figured, "oh what the heck, just run with it." Need I say that the character is better than the synopsis I submitted to my publisher those many months ago? Need I say that my fingers are crossed that the publisher thinks so as well?

I've learned to embrace such moments because they usually herald a nice switch up from standard. By standard I mean the "serial killer is crazy," or the "killer is smarter than the rest of the world" familiar character that we've all come to know and love. While at BookExpoAmerica I did a short video interview. They didn't clear the questions first, so when the interviewer asked me "how do you keep a thriller fresh" I said, "It's genre fiction and some things are expected" which was shorthand for "you'd better have some moments that, while standard, define the genre." Don't write a long piece about the lovely scenery or readers will think they've wandered into the wrong novel. Do write some tension, action and suspense.

But having said all the above, I find that these moments "off topic" usually end up making the manuscript fresher than it would have been otherwise. I don't write from an outline and now you know why, because I can't seem to even stay true to my own short synopsis. I think this form of creation may lend itself to more tangents. Some, like the one I just took, are all for the better. Yes, one can write oneself into a corner, but I don't often find that to be a problem. Fiction writers have the world at their disposal. We just bend it to fit the story and keep on going!