How to write a book and ---
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... watch your characters take over ...


Right now I am at the raw material stage with writing my next book; still on the first draft. It's the second draft where structure starts to be imposed and and a little oxygen allowed in. So, we, the book and I are journeying along, hopefully lucidly and temptingly, but I am already concerned that (a bit like life) it is going in uncontrollable directions.

It's the characters. Perhaps because they are young and unformed (a bit like children) they begin to behave in unforeseen ways. For example: he/she is apparently progressing down a clear path (created, don't lets forget, by the author), weeds mostly removed, threatening trees cut back, dense foliage removed, (and lots of other horticultural metaphors,) when, wham, off the character goes disappearing down a narrow path I, the author, hadn't been aware of. And here's the thing, often that pathway is okay and I am fine with the wandering off. Often it is a better route to take. These times I think, shouldn't I be in control here? Is this character trying to distract me from the way I set out for him? Am I now merely his voice? His scribe? What exactly is his motivation? Is he only trying to establish his independence?

Does this happen to all writers of fiction? Or do some keep a tight rein knowing the beginning, middle and end, and refusing to allow their characters room to do their own thing. Whereas I can be surprised by my characters and then they are likely to take over and move the book along in a different direction. Someone I thought on the periphery pushes their way in, sits down and stays.

I suppose here we come to consideration of what comes first. Back to the chicken and egg question. What does comes first? The plot or the characters? (Of course there is the setting to bear in mind too but I'll leave that for another day.) Of course plot and characters are intertwined. Of course, say I, but some writers start with one or the other. I guess you can know where the story is going before the characters are created, but surely the characters breathe life, vitality, direction into the plot. I suspect that a plot highly structured in advance might leave little room to manoeuvre and risk winding up flat.



When I start a book the characters are mine. I have control. I hold all the cards. (Are you listening characters?) They aren't friends. This is not an equal relationship. I can shove one under a car, and hey, no comeback to me. I decide on height, weight, looks, actions. I can ignore their pleas to have a biting wit, be handsome, taller. Until … until they begin to ease me out, and write their own story. Is it me being lazy or not planning enough that means I am ceding control? Not only can characters change the story, they can crush it. No, that's too harsh a word. But they can reign supreme.

Think of characters that outlive the plot. Think Sherlock Holmes, Elizabeth Bennet, Oliver Twist. Think Cinderella, Miss Marple, Alice. These characters have almost become verbs. The chances are you know them quite intimately even if you haven't read the book(s). They lodge in your mind rather like relatives you haven't seen for a while but will always know the history of.



And last but hardly least. You, dear readers. You play perhaps the most important part. You will imagine my characters, but not necessarily as I do. How many times after seeing a film of a book do you say ' she just wasn't right for …' What I realise is that my characters won't exist, not properly, until you the reader bring them to life in your imagination. You let them become sentient beings. Lucky characters. Lucky readers. To have so much power.



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