Years ago, in the days before I ever tried to write a novel, I used to hear of writers saying that their characters ‘didn’t always do what they told them to’, or that they had ‘a mind of their own’.   While I was rather charmed by the thought of fictional inventions having a life beyond that given to them by the writer, the sentiment struck me as rather pretentious and unlikely. 

Pretentious and unlikely, that is, until I started writing my own novels, and discovered that this is exactly what characters seem to do.  Not necessarily often, but more than seldom, I suppose.  And when a moment like that happens, it feels great –  one of the best moments in the writing of a novel perhaps –  because it’s at that point that you realise that the narrative and the characters you have invented have a genuine life, which exists beyond that of your own imagination.  For me, it’s one of the ‘fixes’ that make writing so exciting.

Something of the sort happened a week or so ago, in the writing of my new novel.  I don’t want to give any plot away, but one character – let’s call him A – is winding up the heroine, who, for the sake of this post, we can call S.  A is trying to prejudice her against a young man (B) in whom she is developing quite an interest.  I had written a short section of dialogue between them, in which A was telling S that she should be careful of getting too close to B.  Why, she asks.  ‘Ah, well,’ A says, shrugging – ‘If you knew about his past …’

At this point, A might well have known about B’s past, but for me, well  I had absolutely no idea what he was referring to, myself.  I hadn’t been expecting A to say that to S at all, and hoped very much that inspiration would strike, so that I could come up with a suitable back story for B over the next few pages.

Later in the chapter, S confronts B and asks to know what A is talking about – she’s desperate to know what’s happened in his past that might be seen by A as being problematical.  He promises to tell her later.   As he promised,  I still had no idea what dark secrets B might have been harbouring, so as I wrote his words, I was worrying about what the hell I was going to come up with.

Then, a couple of pages further on, the moment of revelation was reached.  There was no getting away from it.  B agreed to tell S all about the unspoken history A had raked up – but I still had NO IDEA what the back story was.  Then I opened the speech marks …  and B just told her.  He knew.  I didn’t, but he did.  It was extraordinary.  I hadn’t planned it, or consciously invented it – B just knew.

And what was even odder was that as the story poured out, I realised that it explained something fundamental about B’s motivation, and I realised that I understood something about him of which I hadn’t been aware up until then.

It was a really exciting moment.

I’m sure that any writer who reads this will have had a moment like that of their own – do share!

Posted in General | Written By November 10, 2012

4 Comments

  • By Jane Lovering, November 13, 2012 @ 4:10 pm

    Oh I am so glad other authors have the same thing happen – I thought I was going mad! Half way through the sequel to my vampire novel, and one of the characters does something quite bizarre (for him). I had no idea why, but decided to go with it, because this is first draft and I figure I can always change it later. And then, within moments, something *else* happens, which puts the whole ‘bizarre’ into perspective – something unplanned that my brain put in the story without my permission!
    I can only conclude that my subconscious is a hell of a lot more intelligent than my conscious mind…

  • By Elaine Moxon, November 13, 2012 @ 4:46 pm

    Gabrielle,

    Thank you for posting this. Yes, yes, yes! I have had this happen to me on more than one occasion. One instance was similar to your experience whereby history of another character was revealed to me. Another was an entire sub-plot running beneath my main stoeyline. I lovethese moments and am filled with anticipation of the next ‘reveal’. One intriguing idea I have tried is becoming your character while a third party interviews you. This can also reveal surprising answers!

    Best wishes, Elaine

  • By Gaby, November 14, 2012 @ 1:00 pm

    I think my subconscious mind is a lot more organised than my conscious one, that’s for certain, Jane. (Not that that’s difficult!)

  • By Gaby, November 14, 2012 @ 1:02 pm

    Elaine, I like your ‘third party’ idea – I’ve used it often in drama lessons, where it’s known as ‘hot-seating’ and it’s a great way to get under a character’s skin. I directed a play a few years ago, with a big cast, and we spent a happy afternoon at the beginning inventing back-stories and connections between characters, building up a web of interaction which really helped them to find the characterisations, I think.

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