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Weldon Writes ... Almost a Blog

Of Characters and Cobbler's Elves

If you know any writers, you’ve probably heard something like the following: “I started to write a scene in my novel, pretty much following my outline. But then one of the characters went into a totally different direction. Before long, the characters ending up writing the scene for me, in a way I never expected. And it’s better because of it!”

Non-writers scratch their heads at this. Is this some form of magic? Is there really a muse that usurps the writer’s brain and writes the story? Is this something like the cobbler’s elves?

I was just working on a chapter in my police procedural novel, tentatively titled Harvester of Sorrow. In the chapter, the body of a child is discovered in a remote area of a county park, and the murder may be related to similar murders in a nearby city. This brings up a case of jurisdiction (county vs. city police departments) that I hadn’t considered earlier, and this required that I create a new character, a detective from the county PD. The character was originally only a walk-on, but I quickly realized he was a more significant character, and he changed the chapter as I wrote it. He will appear in subsequent chapters.

Magic??

The January 2011 issue of Writer’s Digest includes an interview with Harlan Coben, best-selling author of numerous thrillers such as Tell No One, Just One Look, Long Lost, Hold Tight, and Caught. During the interview, WD asked, “So do your characters ever surprise you—do they become real to you in that way?” He answered, “Oh, they surprise me all the time. … I don’t like it when people make it seem more magical. It’s not. It’s work. It can be wonderful, and it can be thrilling, but it’s not really magical.”



When I first read this, I honed in on Coben’s claim, “It’s work.” I know what he means. Characters may seem to take on lives of their own, but only after the writer has given great thought to those characters, has worked with them in the story, has fully developed them. Maybe, as a writer, you’ve learned something more about the character as a scene progresses, and the character moves into that new area as your broaden that character’s role in the story. Magic? I don’t think so. It comes from hard work, from the writer being intimate with the characters he/she has created.

Maybe, as the characters have matured in your mind, they no longer fit the outline you originally devised, simply because it forces them to act out of character. This may be a surprise, that a character may go through door B instead of door A as you originally envisioned. But, it’s really no surprise at all—you’re subliminal thoughts were headed in that direction as the character was being developed. No magic. Just hard work.

When characters take over a story, it’s almost always a good and desired turn of events. As a writer, go with the flow. Think of it as a reward for the work you’ve already put into your work-in-progress!
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