Pep Talk - WHRN 2009 - Your characters and you: "Wait, since when are you evil and a woman? You're the hero and your name is Bob!" by Sheba

(Note: This pep talk contains no fancy links, no references to movies (especially Star Wars) or songs, authors or other books. Because, frankly, I don't know much about these things. This might be bad for those looking for a pep talk as professional as the ones before this one or good for those tired of looking up all the fancy reference stuff. Also, a big thanks to Hope (aka Subtle Kisses) for beta-reading!)

A wise man once said: ďIt is not the author that picks the characters, but the characters who pick the author.Ē

And with that smart statement, I want to begin this pep talk. More than one third of February has passed now and if the word count is rising as it should for you, whatever your goal is, this means that your characters are doing well and so are you. But no amount of words can truly protect a writer from characters going crazy.

Crazy isn't always bad. Okay, so maybe in your novel that omnipotent, mysterious god of your fantasy world insists that his name is Fred, your female main character - who has just started snogging with her male sidekick - suddenly reveals she is a lesbian and this unimportant side character starts to take over your plot, but still, crazy isn't bad. Honestly.

For the sake of this pep talk, I want to compare characters to puppies. Getting a new character is like getting a puppy. It's exciting, it makes you happy and a whole new world of possibilities appears before you. However, initial excitement always wears off quickly and then you are stuck with one crucial fact:

You need to bring up your new puppy or it will eat your shoes, your dinner and half of your toes while you sleep or turn into a jealous ball of fur and teeth protecting you even against your best friends.

Luckily, characters are usually a bit smarter and your shoes are safe (except for that one werewolf of yours, maybe), but as shown above, they tend to come up with their own ways of hijacking your plot and turning your writer's life into a miserable hell. So, you, as the owner of some brand new characters, have to think of different methods to keep them in check.

I. The kennel (or: I have outlines, damnit! Follow them!)

So, when you donít want your characters to misbehave, you just have to tell them what to do. In detail. I know there are some of you here who write outlines for each and every scene, and those who plan their novels from the first to the last word.

The dangers of this are close to not even spotable. While I could never pull something like writing with an outline off because Iíd be bored before I even start to write since I already know what happens, those who can are in for a safer ride than others. Outlines keep characters in check because they are, basically, plans. If you donít give your mysterious god the possibility to announce his name is Fred, youíre golden.

However, a puppy kept in a kennel without methods to go out and play becomes a sad puppy. Maybe even aggressive. Maybe it will start to chase its tail until it has bitten it bloody. If you manage to bore your characters, they might still turn against you. To stay with the picture of the puppy: If you pet your puppy and play with it for a few hours a day, itíll stay happy even in a kennel. Be nice to your characters and show that you appreciate that they follow your plot.

So, how are you nice to them? Itís easy. Just make sure your outlines contain at least a few scenes where you allow them to be happy. Putting them only through torture and despair is not a good way to stay on their good sides. If all fails and your plot is set up as a trial of pain and angst, write some fun, light short stories with your characters. You will be surprised how rewarding they will be in turn.

II. The long leash (or: Okay, playtime over, now brush your teeth!)

This is the path I normally take, so this is what I can talk about the most. The Ďlong leashí basically means that you know how your novel starts, how your novel will end and those crucial, important key-scenes.

In my first novel, my characters had to climb a monster-filled tower to destroy it. I knew about the scenes where they would finally stop hating each other and start being friends, but I basically allowed my characters to run free between them and to look for traps and monster-filled rooms on their own. This resulted in god-eating slugs, women-only doors and the information that demons and cutlery donít match. It was awesome. Really, giving your characters some space makes them happy, gives you great scenes and they are more inclined to do you a favor and behave during those crucial scenes.

But there are two big traps here. First, your characters will get used to their freedom. And while they are most likely willing to cooperate with you, this doesnít mean that they are good with it. How often have I thought about a key scene during my way back home from work and everything seemed awesome; every sentence meaningful and funny. And then, when I sat down to write it, it turned into an awkward piece of stiff dialogue because my characters are very, very bad actors and not used to recite a planned-out script.

The most horrible happening, however, is when your characters donít know what to do. Thatís what Iím currently struggling with. In my current novel, I have a lot of the same cast from that god-eating-slugs-novel...but this time, they just donít know what to do. There are no awesome traps, no terrible monsters and this poses one big problem: I know what will happen in 20k. But how to get there? I have no plot for those words, relying only on my characters and they are as clueless as I am, not finding anything to make a plot out of.

To prevent this? Sometimes throwing a side character in helps. Give them something to play with, like the first word from a brainstorming map, and just like a puppy can suddenly toy for hours with an empty box, they will begin to play. Or maybe wait for a day, sometimes inspiration hits your characters as well.

Itís not an easy way of writing, I give you that. It makes you highly dependent on your characters Ė but this is what I find most rewarding as well. Seeing them interact naturally, letting them express their thoughts and ideas freely without letting them completely take over so you can still tell the tale you want to. It makes your characters your partners and Ė since I know of no writer who would write about characters they didnít like Ė your friends as well. And even if your novel turns out as crap in the end, this is an experience which makes all the work absolutely worth it.

III. Rampant puppy on the loose! (or: Words! Give me words! Do something!)

Are you one of those guys who sigh when the puppy stole the food from the table, but awwww, itís so cute with the bowl on its head? Then this might be the way for you. Itís for those who donít like planning, who like spontaneity and, most likely, crack novels. There are no limits for your characters here because you have no plot or restriction of any kind. Your novel lives on dare threads and random things you give your characters to play with until they get bored, then you give them something new. You donít even care that your god is named Fred, in fact, you love it.

And you get the words out of it. Itís an awesome experience for sure, albeit a risky one. What do you know, your characters might make their own plot out of something random! They might embark on a quest so awesome you would have never thought of it yourself and you might end up with the most awesome novel since the beginning of time; with character interactions as true and pure and natural as possible.

Or your characters will turn into demanding, destructive beasts of hell, wanting more and more things to play with. Like the puppy who suddenly growls at your best friend who wants to sit on the couch next to you or the puppy who refuses to be alone because itís angry you left it, the apple of your eye; the one you do everything for.

You probably think now that this shouldnít matter. In the end, your characters arenít puppies who can terrorize your real life. True. But believe it or not, your characters still depend on you. They need a world to interact with and when you only give and give and give, your characters want more and more because they get bored more and more quickly Ė one day you might be out of dares and then you are stuck, left with characters who are impatiently tapping their feet, waiting for the next toy.

Sounds terrible? It might not be. In fact, there are so many writers who ditch their plots on October 31st and when NaNo starts, they just write whatever comes to them. The experience is worth it. When you indeed plan a crack novel, you probably have enough ideas to busy your characters for the novel. If you still want to write something with a real plot, you will probably get ideas sooner or later after watching your characters for a while and then switch to the long leash.

So now, you are probably all confused about puppies and characters and dog stuff or contemplating what to try. You know, for all this talk, for all the puppies out there Ė they are all different and so are you. I could probably write a novel with outlines, but I hate making them so the novel would probably turn out bad. Those who love them might be terribly overwhelmed with a puppy demanding to run free. In the end, every writer is different, just like the characters are. When you go to a pound, you will probably find a puppy which seems to fit only you and no one else.

Characters Ė and here ends my puppy-metaphor Ė donít have to be picked. They come to you. They knock on the door in your head and want to enter your mind. And they really, really are smarter than a puppy and probably know why they picked you. In the end, your characters want to work and have fun with you and you should remind yourself of that, even when Writerís Block hits you.

So, with all that talk, I just told you how to prevent Ė or provoke Ė your characters going insane. But I still havenít told you what to do when your characters actually do start messing up your novel.

The reason is: Because you canít do much. Especially not during a WriMo, when you shouldnít edit. So my recommendation is to just accept the facts and let them work in your favor. Letís pick the example from above, the god that insists his name is Fred. Letís look at the possibilities!

Really, the possibilities are endless and itís not that hard to include those sudden urges of your characters into your plot. If it just refuses to work, well, you probably should just go with it anyway. The gods in my novels Ė and currently my main characters Ė are called Shabranigdo, Dugradigdu and Garamigdo and boy, do I wish they were called Bill, Bob and Moe because (mis-)typing those names in every second sentence is a pain. But well, they are my characters. And in the end, those little things are what makes me love them the most.

Also, I lied at the beginning. It wasnít as wise man who said that one sentence. It was me. One of my characters likes to do this stuff to make everyone think about what he says more. I just wanted to test if it works Ė because, quite honestly, my characters are most times much smarter than I am.