Sunday, October 3, 2010

Sometimes You Have to Forget What You Think You Know

It can be very hard, when you think you have ideas for a plot and/or characters, to let go of them.

When I started writing my current, still-untitled novel back at the beginning of the year, I had only the characters and very vague hints of plot.  This is normal for me; I am a "character author".  I typically start stories because Random Character walks into my mind and introduces himself/herself.


I tend to know way more about the characters than the plot in the beginning.

Such was the case with my current novel.  Unfortunately, when I started writing what I thought I knew of the plot, it went nowhere.  I was running into dead ends.  I was frustrated and wanted to throw the poor beginnings of my book against the wall.

Then I began to think, I have four characters.  I know these characters will be in this book, but maybe I've been forcing on them my ideas on how they interact. Maybe I'm forcing the plot to be what it's not supposed to be.

This might sound ridiculous.  How can anyone force their ideas on characters?  Isn't that kind of the point?  I'm the author; shouldn't I be the one in charge?  Shouldn't they do exactly what I want them to do?

But most writers will tell you that characters take on their own life after a while.  I call this the moment when a character "clicks" into place in my head.  Sometimes this happens immediately; sometimes it takes writing two hundred pages.  Sooner or later, though, I'm not fighting to write a character or spending a lot of time thinking about what they would do.  They suddenly begin to tell me what they are going to do, and if I don't like it, that's just too darn bad for me.  This tends to lead to a lot of hair-pulling and numerous posts to my personal journal going, "WHAT ARE YOU THINKING, CHARACTERS?" because it oftentimes pulls my story in a direction I did not foresee.


This isn't a bad thing.  It might be unexpected, but it can add things to my story that I wouldn't have imagined.  Once characters have all clicked, I feel like I'm running after them, waving my arms like a crazy person and begging them to let me keep up with them.  Most of the time, they aren't very inclined to listen.

To every author, their characters become very real.  Authors have to get into these characters' heads, and know what is motivating them, how they would react in certain situations, and all sorts of little quirks.  Characters sometimes tell me the most random things about themselves.  Last year, I wrote a NaNo novel, and when it was finished, I read back through it.  I realized that one character liked grape juice and that when any color for her was chosen or described, it was always pink.  This was completely subconscious, but trust me, I was very pleased that she'd been consistent all the way through the story.

So.  Here I was this past April, sure that I knew my characters, how they would meet each other, and how they would interact, and then realizing maybe I was forcing my ideas on them when they had ideas of their own.


I decided I needed to visualize. I didn't have any posterboard, so I taped a bunch of printer paper together, stuck it to my wall, and scribbled out an outline for a map.  When creating a fictional world, sometimes having a map, however rough, to visualize can spark fresh knowledge and ideas.

Then I went at the paper. Before long, all of the pieces of paper were filled with scribbles.  I did my best to clear my mind of everything I thought I knew.  Maybe, I mused, there was a different plot somewhere in here.

By the end of the day, I had a brand new plot.  My characters were the same, but they had altered some of my perceptions about them.  They had decided to meet in different ways than I had originally planned.  Character B, who was supposed to trust Character C completely, ended up not trusting him at all.

With this new knowledge of my plot and characters, I sat down and began to write.  It still wasn't easy.  I hit 18,000 words and ran into The Hump. I was ready to surrender. I'd never, ever had such a hard time writing any novel.  I wasn't sure where I was going and the characters started to flounder.  Then I was whining talking about it to my wonderful friend, Faith, who is also my co-author for the Restoration YA fantasy series.  She told me, "Commit, Laura!" and I had to make that decision to just keep plunging forward.  (I will do a blog very soon on having a support system when writing a book.)

After several months of writing, part 1 of my novel was finally finished.  I felt great.  The characters were real now, the world was real, and part 2 started flowing so very nicely.


Until I reached The Hump in part 2 and began to realize my carefully constructed plot is missing something.  What is it missing, you ask?  I wish I knew.  I have all the pieces, but I just know that something about it needs to change.  I am now back to asking myself, What if I'm trying to force this part of the plot on these people?  What if they have something else in mind?  What if there's some political agenda that I haven't seen yet?  What are my characters trying to tell me?  And for the love of all things good, could they please tell me soon so I can get rid of this urge to throw the book against the wall!?!?

This puts me at today, where I taped yet more papers together (I really need to get some posterboard) and stuck them to the wall.  And I am back to trying to visualize what it is I'm missing, just like I was back in April.

The thing is, writing is a journey.  Sometimes the writing flies out, and sometimes it's step over step, dragging yourself along and poking listlessly at the keyboard.  It can be joyous, but it can also be aggravating.  It is work.

Sometimes, something unexpected has to happen.  You'd be amazed at the story that can come from throwing a random, unplanned event into the story.  Someone gets a call from the hospital.  A mysterious letter shows up at the door.  A new character waltzes into the story and wreaks havoc on your book. 


If you're writing a book, there may be times when you're really bored with it.  You may think no one would ever want to read it.  You may think that you should just give up and save humanity from having their eyes burned should they ever see your pitiful words.

This is normal.  Really.

It doesn't mean you should give up.  Maybe you need a break.  Maybe you need a good cup of coffee and some chocolate.  Maybe you need a friend to tell you to commit already!  Every writer works differently and writes best in different conditions. 

But every writer has characters that speak to them, and through my current novel, I've learned that sometimes what I really need is to take several steps back, forget everything I think I know about the plot, and let the characters take me at it from a different angle. 

So in a few minutes, I will go back to my plot wall of papers and ask, "What are my characters trying to tell me right now?"

I expect the unexpected. 



  1. I LOVE IT!

    You crack me up.

    Must. Write. Blog.

    (Um....after I move.)

  2. @Emily Kate Johnston :D Thanks! It was fun. :D

    I can't wait to see your blog once you're settled and can start it. :D

  3. Omg, this was so funny! Your personality is all over it. It kept making me think of when we were kids and would sit around writing together- thank goodness mom encouraged reading! You are such a great writer- I'm so glad you did something with that talent!

  4. @Ruth Zipfel :D Thanks, Ru! Mom was encouraging in soooo many ways. I mean, she read everything we ever wrote and told us it was awesome. ;) I don't think I'd be where I am today if it wasn't for that.

  5. I might suggest perhaps bouncing the plot off of a fellow writer (say in a writer's group of some sort), or even a friend that reads a lot. Unless you feel that any idea offered by another (hopefully experienced) writer would somehow transfer part of the book to that person, since it won't have come from your own brain.

    I (up until recently) attended a writer's group, and found the ability to brainstorm about ideas and directions to be fascinating and valuable (as well as fun!).

  6. @David Wagner Thanks! I actually have a very solid group of writer friends who do offer suggestions and help me through so much. My husband and several of my writer friends have been acting as my sounding board through this book--I was actually planning on using this subject as my next blog.

    It's fantastic to be able to brainstorm about things with other writers, isn't it? :D


Thanks for sharing your thoughts!