When it Comes to Your Writing, Who’s Really in Control?

Where do you want your characters to go…or where should they take you?

So, you’ve finally done it. You’ve completed your outline for your novel or short story and you’re ready to sit down and write.  Your fingers are poised over the keys of your computer – or typewriter, if you’re old school – you take a deep breath, and dive into the story.

As you start to dig into story, you realize that your main character is taking you down a storyline that you didn’t outline or anticipate.  In fact, it’s almost as if your protagonist is in control of what they’re saying and doing.  It’s as if you are only there to transcribe the events as they unfold.  A mere voyeur to a story you hadn’t even planned.

This is a good thing!

I’ve had these moments happen many times while writing.  I think I’m going to take the story one place due to planning ahead, and then the main character takes the wheel and we go off on a weed-infested dirt road that I never even knew was there.  It’s at these moments while writing – especially during the drafting process – that it’s best to just sit back and see where things go.

Sometimes you’ll hit a dead end.  Sometimes you’ll learn something new about the character and the choices they make that can have an impact on the story and in turn the character’s interactions with others in the story.  The key during these moments is not to fight the creativity taking hold of your brain and your fingers as the rapidly pound the keys to get every sentence down as fast as possible.

And it’s not only a great method of discovery for your main character.  Supporting characters can benefit and develop greatly during this process of creative surrender.  Maybe you have a character who you feel isn’t strong or dimensional enough; but while writing a sequence that includes them they begin to say things and do things that make them far more interesting and instrumental to the overall story.  That’s always an exciting time!

While I do support writing outlines, I also believe that as creative people we must allow ourselves to give into the temptation of going where our roadmap doesn’t.  Even if you do return to the road you previously paved, you may have learned a thing or two that can benefit your characters – and your story – in the long run.

Have you ever let your characters take the wheel and take your story down a trail you never expected? Leave a comment and let me know!

Make Every Character Count

When creating characters for a story, whether it’s a novel, short story, screenplay, play, etc., remember that every character you introduce must serve a purpose in the story.  It’s pointless and a waste of time for you and your audience to have to deal with characters that have no reason for existing within the context of the story being presented.

Yes, there are different types of characters in a story that serves a multitude of purposes.  But even Henchman #3 has a reason to be in the story. If he’s just there doing nothing and has no purpose in fighting the main character or helping to escalate the obstacles for the main character than they should be removed ASAP.

Your main character is surrounded by supporting characters.  Those characters exist to help the main character, to support the main character, to give exposition and context to the main character and their world. They, in essence, ground the main character in the reality of the story. 

The antagonist exists to upend the world of the main character, and the characters associated with them are there to cause chaos for the protagonist as well.  They serve a purpose in the story: to help drive the action and conflict of the narrative and create obstacles for the main character.

Utility characters are those that the main character interacts with that often help the main character in some basic way: a cab driver; a cop; a barista; a witness who heard something.  They help propel the story forward but they aren’t integral to the main character’s overall growth over the course of the narrative.  On TV shows, these are also usually the random characters that pop up in an episode only to be killed off so the main cast can stay in-tact.

If you are taking the time to create and write about a character, they must serve a purpose that serves the main character on their journey.  Don’t spend hours creating a random character who appears in one chapter who is fascinating and clever, only for them to never be seen again.  If this does happen when you’re writing, maybe save that character for another story or integrate them more into what you’ve written.

It’s okay to have crowd of people in a story, but don’t get too focused in on who they are as individuals unless the ones you select to describe more have a purpose later on.  For example, if you have a group of protesters, you can give us an idea of what they look like and what they are doing/protesting, but naming them and giving them backstories is only worth your time and the audience’s time if we will see those particular characters later.

The most important characters are your main character and the antagonist.  Everyone else exists to serve them or oppose them over the course of the story.

How do you make sure you are keeping your story focused and on track?  We’ll talk about that topic on Monday!

What Are Your Story’s Stakes?

What’s at risk if your main character doesn’t achieve their goal by the end of the story?  In other words: what are the stakes?  Will they lose their life?  Will someone they need to find lose theirs?  Will the serial killer strike again?  Will the world end?  Will they lose the knitting competition? 

Stakes are what keep your main character – and your audience – motivated to keep going.  If the stakes are too low, then your audience begins to wonder what’s in it for them if they keep watching or reading.  And if the stakes for your main character are so minimal that they can see the solution to their problem will be an easy one, then there really is no conflict or dramatic tension in the narrative to drive the main character forward.

When you think about the stakes and the obstacles your main character must face to reach their goal, ask yourself if they are challenging enough to actually elicit change and growth in your main character.  Will they have to sacrifice something?  Will they have to change their behavior or an aspect of themselves in order to reach their goal?  And what will it mean for them if they don’t reach the goal and the stakes result in failure?

When it comes to stakes, it’s okay to paint your main character into a corner.  It’s okay to give them a challenge that seems insurmountable to overcome.  In doing this you create a heightened level of tension that in turn keeps your audience glued to the screen or page.  How will they get out of this jam?  Will they have help?  How will overcoming this obstacle help them when the next one appears?

Also, too, remember that stakes are relative to the story you are telling.  If your main character is determined to win a quilting bee, the stakes probably won’t be: Win the bee or the world will be destroyed.  On the other hand, if the world is at stake, there should be a sense of urgency driving your main character to act, which will also create a sense of urgency in the audience.

And when it comes to creating urgency, nothing helps better than a Ticking Clock, which we will explore on Thursday!