Month: January 2011

What to do when characters develop a mind of their own

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The one thing that you can be sure that all writers have in common is that at some point we have read a book or article on the writing craft. One thing that I have encountered a number of times in reading about writing is the statement that it is not true that characters can take over a story.

This is usually accompanied by detailed instructions on outlining a story, whether it’s a short story or novel, before you begin writing. I suppose if you happen to be a WWO, a writer who outlines, this is probably true. I don’t know what applies to WWNO, writers who never outline, because I fall somewhere in between. I usually start with a fairly clear idea in mind as to where I want the story to go, who the characters are, the nature of the conflict, and the setting. I write a concise description of the main plot, make a list of the characters, and even sometimes make a time line.

In most of the stories I write, things go according to plan. But, on occasion, things take a turn that I have not planned for. Because I tend to write serial stories, novels and short stories, I try to carry over the main theme from story to story. Sometimes, though, either readers who have taken a particular liking to a character, and offer compelling justifications for their views, or the characters themselves, turn my nice neat story line on its ear.

About a year ago, for instance, just for fun, I wrote a short story about an urban kid with money problems. He’d borrowed money from a loan shark and couldn’t make his payments. This particularly story had a postal theme, so I gave it the title, “Dead Letter.” The plot was simple; my protagonist was trying to lay low to keep from getting his legs broken, so he changed his name and moved. Unfortunately for him, the Post Office tracked him down by delivering a letter sent to his old name and address to his new digs and, you guessed it, the loan shark found him.

I ended the story with a shotgun blast through the door and him being slammed against the wall. Fortunately, I didn’t specifically say that the shot had killed him; I preferred to allow readers to come to their own conclusion. One perceptive reader, though, had taken a liken to my character, Louis Dumkowski, and sent me an email asking if I could do a follow on story bringing him back to life. While I don’t normally make such drastic changes because of just one reader, her email was so sincere, I decided to take a crack at it.

Since I hadn’t actually killed Louis, in the second story I had him regain consciousness with a chest full of splinters from the door, which had absorbed almost all of the buck shot from the shotgun. Now, of course, I had to give him a new challenge, so I put him on the run. After all, if the loan shark learned that he’d failed, he might try again. Doing the second story got me interested in Louis’s fate, so I did a few more, putting him in one crazy situation after another. Some readers liked it, and kept asking for more.

Louis matured a bit, but only a bit, from story to story; mostly with the help of his high school buddy, Cleatus Washington. And I finally wrote a confrontation story, with Cleatus convincing Louis to face the loan shark. That led to some more humorous situations as the loan shark, a superstitious street punk named Vinnie ‘the Enforcer’ Williams, was so freaked that he hadn’t killed Louis, he hired him to collect loans. For good measure, he hired Cleatus as well.

A couple more stories had the two of them encountering customers, and developing a conscience. Well, Cleatus developed a conscience, and drug Louis along, which brought me to the last story in the series – or at the last one that I’ve written.

My plan was for Cleatus to convince Louis that they should stop bleeding the poor people in the neighborhood and get into a more decent line of work. My plan was to have a confrontation with Vinnie, perhaps with a bloody nose or two, but with Louis prevailing in the end. As I wrote, I could see the story in my head like an old black and white B movie, and the dialogue was clear in my head. The problem was, these two reprobates didn’t want to say what I’d planned for them to say. And, when Vinnie appears near the end of the story, the confrontation just didn’t seem the way they wanted to go. He’d been around them so long; well, actually, he’d been spending most of his time soaking up Jack Daniels and coke in the local bar while they did all the work, but his earlier nearly religious superstition, and the fact that he was sponging off his uncle, didn’t make a fight logical. What the characters wanted to do, in fact, was become respectable and liked members of the community. So, I just let the movie play out, and the three of them end up shaking hands and deciding to begin helping the community – for a profit of course; they didn’t totally change their mercenary ways.

The response to “Outside Parcel” was immediate. One reader expressed pleasure that the guys were trying to go straight, and looked forward to their new adventures. As for me, I’m just curious to see what they might get up to the next time I sit down and start typing.

If you’re interested in knowing more about the adventures of Louis and Cleatus, check out “Dead Letter,” “Return to Sender,” “Unclaimed Package,” “Rural Free Delivery,” and “Outside Parcel” at http://www.fictionwritersplatform.net.