Getting out of their way: letting characters thrive

Though I have written but one novel, (arriving spring of 2011), I have learned a few things to pass on to writers who may be struggling with their own fictional adventures. Jaden Baker was six years in the making. One reason the story took so long to complete was characterization.

Writing characters is a lot like a certain type of parenting. Allow me to explain.

My mom tells this story of when I was newly born: Many days and nights she held the sleeping Courtney in her arms and looked at me and said: “I wonder who you are.” She didn’t say “I hope you become a doctor” or “I hope you’re a great pianist.” The adventure would be discovering my uniqueness and watching me grow into the person God intended. I’m so thankful she held that perspective rather than making her plans for my future.

Characters are a little like children. The writer has birthed them, yes, but they are separate entities. My control over each character is limited. It’s like each fictional person has their own free will, and though I can put obstacles into their path, they react independent of me. The amazing and funnest thing about writing fiction is watching and listening to characters. Though they have grown and matured in my mind, they are individuals. They can be smarter, wiser, wittier, and more patient than their author. They can also be quite evil.

As a new writer I was a controlling parent, deciding their traits and behavior. I had an idea of how a protagonist/hero should be: always brave, assertive, and somewhat agressive. Like a child, he rebelled. When I put an obstacle in his path he stared at it, he did not work it out. That didn’t make sense to me. If my character had the qualities of the typical hero, then he should have flourished. But he didn’t. I had stifled him.

The moment I let Jaden be himself, the easier the writing became. Jaden was more interesting as his own person than I could have hoped he would become under my rule. Because I was no longer dictating his every action, he grew independent, strong, and extremely mature. Once I stepped aside, Jaden amazed me. He did and said things I would never think to do or say. He was strong in a different and better way than I originally planned. Following him on his journey was fascinating.

It wasn’t only the protagonist who thrived. The new mentality brought forth the darkest side of the antagonist. I never stopped to think about what was too much. He was human enough, as a character, to have his own limitations–I would not need to design them. A villain is a villain, evil is evil. It was not my responsibility to stop or interfere with his doings. The story would work that out itself.

The more I thought of my characters as real people and not as my creations, the more real they became. As I wrote the novel, I really acted like the invisible journalist. I documented. I took notes. I allowed the characters to be who they were, for better or for worse. My job, as the writer, is to tell the story, not to control those who are central to it.

I keep the same mentality as I continu writing future stories. I wonder who the characters are, I do not form them. Writing the first pages of a novel is almost like reading one: I’m getting to know and learn a character. If I were to form and mold one, he or she would be limited to my own personal traits and ambitions. And where’s the fun in that?