Why Won't Characters Do As They're Told?
Do characters really have a life of their own? Or is it all just marketing bunk and cultural mythmaking? Do writers really commune with the unseen?
According to his creator Robert E. Howard, Conan the barbarian – that icon of masculine romance – entered our world like he’d been real all along. In a letter to fellow pulp author Clark Ashton Smith in 1935, Howard wrote, “I did not create [Conan] by any conscious process. He simply stalked full grown out of oblivion and set me to work recording the saga of his adventures.”
In truth, the character’s evolution took several months, and had less to do with his author being ordered about by imaginary barbarians and more to do with what pulp editors were buying that year. Howard may have been guilty of indulging in the kind of self-mythologising that we writers love, the sort of needy postering that confirms our popular status as visionaries, shamans, psychics, Moses receiving instruction from God.
That shit does wonders for building a writer’s brand.
Over six decades later, those lines from Howard’s letter had been colourfully embroidered by a succession of editors, fans and adaptors, all of whom wisely chose to print the marketable legend.
“[Howard’s] alone one night and he feels this shadow overtake him from behind and he knows that CONAN is standing behind him with a large axe, and Conan tells him, ‘Just stay there and write, and if you don’t do EXACTLY what I tell you I’m gonna cleave you down the middle!”
John Milius, director of Conan the Barbarian (1982), quoted from Conan Unchained: The Making of Conan (2000)
It’s a tall tale of which Howard himself might have been proud, but there’s a definite truth to the phenomenon of fictional characters telling their writers what to do.
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A 2020 study by Durham Universitysurveyed 181 authors attending the Edinburgh international book festival in 2014 and 2018. The study found that 63% of authors surveyed claimed to hear their characters talking. Another 61% claimed their characters could act independently. “I hear them in my mind,” one author said. “They have distinct voice patterns and tones, and I can make them carry on conversations with each other in which I can always tell who is ‘talking’.”
Over half of the authors surveyed (56%) reported various sensory experiences connected to their characters. “I sense their presence as you sense somebody in a dream. They are very much known to me, but only in peripheral vision and as an atmosphere or a force exerting itself.”
Quoted in a 2011 article for The Guardian, novelist Hilary Mantel makes an even more startling claim.
“I am so intensely engaged with my characters that their physicality passes into mine, and I've only just discovered the joys of working with a really healthy central character. When I started writing Wolf Hall, my novel about Thomas Cromwell, I got extremely strong. My health suddenly improved and I felt as if the boundaries of my being had become firmer. Cromwell is physically a short, broad, squat, strong man, and what I've always thought about him is that he was probably very hard to knock over. This is important because he had been a soldier, he had led a very adventurous youth, and I thought, well, if I'd only known what a tonic it would be, I'd have started writing this book years ago! It is just amazing what imagination can do – what it can cause to happen in the real world, and every day I'm proving and exploring how strong the products of one's mind can be.”
Other writers speak of divine forces. Kipling spoke of his ‘Daemon’, an otherworldly force for whose words and ideas the author was merely a vessel. Novelist Steven Pressfield wrote the magnificently bullshit-free The War of Art, yet speaks an earnest prayer to the Muse of legend at the start of every working day.
My own deity of choice is Athena, goddess of craft, wisdom and warfare, patron of spinners and weavers…
For me, conversing with people who aren’t there isn’t limited to gods and fictional characters. It’s a balance between left-brain/right-brain, between head-in-the-clouds/arse-on-the-chair.
To my left is the Creator, wild of hair and frilly of shirt, he of Poldark good looks, armed with quill and rapier, composing an ode to the stars as he pours himself a suicidal measure of Absinthe.
To my right is the Editor, thin, bespectacled, dressed like a Regency librarian, forever scowling, never satisfied. He doesn’t drink.
These two generally take turns in helping me through the stages of putting a story together, from conception to writing and editing. One tends to dominate while the other yells from the sidelines. The Editor complains about doing all the heavy lifting, while the Creator rants and raves and bursts into tears. They frequently come to blows and part of finding my way through the fog of writing is constantly having to prise the Editor and Creator apart and figure out which one is offering the best solution to the writing predicament in hand.
(There’s a third, malevolent figure here too. He’ll disguise himself as the Editor and whisper that all this is beyond me, that I’d earn more working in Sainsbury’s. Or he’ll morph into the Creator when I’m not looking and tell me to browse social media for ‘inspiration’, that I need a day of self-care and it would be best for everyone if I took the day off and played six hours of Assassin’s Creed instead. This demonic sonovabitch is called ‘Resistance’, and if you want to learn how to deal with them go read that Pressfield book The War of Art.)
At the very beginning of a writing project, it’s possible that I’ll have nothing set in stone beyond a deadline. Now’s when I need to drift away, go for a walk in the woods where I can talk to myself without someone calling Social Services. Let the ideas come.
Let the Creator sing.
I’ve told the Editor to stay home. The last thing I want is him tutting in my ear every five seconds while I’m trying to commune with the Goddess.
Once the Creator has given me something, I’ll usher him into the back row of my mind, give him a dab of laudanum and a cold flannel for his brow. Meanwhile, the Editor strides on stage.
Having achieved the 1% inspiration, let the 99% perspiration commence.
The Editor peers at the ideas I scrawled on my notepad while out walking. He grimaces and shakes his head, cursing whatever cosmic forces saw fit to assign him to this dullard of a writer.
Eventually, he clears his throat.
‘Your first novel, eh? And you’ve already got a title: The Wraithbone Phoenix…’
He looks doubtful, but dutiful.
‘And your protagonists are called…’
He squints at the paper.
‘Baggit and Clodde…’
He pinches the bridge of his nose and remains silent for a full minute.
‘And these two are engaged in a treasure hunt… Why? How has this situation occurred? Who else is involved? What adversarial forces resist them? Don’t give me that blank look, you bloody fool. It’s all there in McKee’s Story. Determine what happens should your characters do nothing. Ask what is at stake! What catastrophe might occur should they fail? What does this treasure hunt truly mean to your focal character? Consider the emotional journey. Never mind Save the blasted Cat! Re-read that interview with Margaret Atwood you found last week. And I’m going to insist you tighten your prose. Frankly, you write like you’re engaging the reader in a bar-room brawl! Too much force, dear boy. Hold back. Let absence speak to the reader. Here’s some Hemingway…’
He goes on like this for several hours, during which time he sits me down with an A4 notepad and makes me write down every question he comes up with. I have to answer each of these as fully and as logically as possible. The Creator heckles every now and then, yelling some crazy idea that makes me laugh out loud or is simply too audacious to ignore. Once I’ve filled several pages of the A4 notepad, the Editor makes me go back with a highlighter pen and pick out all the bits that work. It’s mainly structural. There’s not a huge amount of free-form inspiration going on at this point; cold, hard story-logic is doing most of the work.
The Editor selects several treasure hunt movies for me to watch (‘Because it’s quicker than reading books and you’re on a deadline, in case you hadn’t noticed…’). John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Joe Carnahan’s Smokin’ Aces, Guy Ritchie’s Snatch, Walter Hill’s Trespass.
The Editor paces the room as I make exhaustive notes on structure, pinpointing what worked in these stories and what didn’t, how this kind of plot presents certain problems and how best to overcome them. Again and again, the Editor’s calculations are interrupted by the Creator suddenly springing from his hangover and trilling the perfect way in which we might subvert a tired old trope!
‘The punters will bloody love it!’ he cries. And I agree.
I can’t quite hear the characters yet, but I can certainly feel them starting to wriggle with life. I can sense their hidden potential, the manner of madness that will unfold once I get them all together. The Editor and the Creator are putting together not a plot, but a cast of characters.
“Character is plot, plot is character.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald
A main character should be a drama-engine, a story generator. They must be in conflict with themselves, with other characters, or in conflict with a situation. Create a character who doesn’t play well with others, surround them with incompatible characters or a terrible situation and the plot really will suggest itself.
Back when I wrote my Judge Anderson novellas, I made exhaustive notes on everything that had been established about her character. Cassandra Anderson is the most powerful psychic in Mega-City One, she’s empathetic and compassionate on a level unimaginable to most citizens. But she’s also part of the problem. She’s a Judge, an instrument of the fascist capitalist regime in which those citizens are trapped. How does Cassandra deal with that?
There’s another 2000 AD character for whom I’ve written (comics, this time): the mutant vampire Durham Red. Red has to kill people in order to survive. And I wasn’t having any of that ‘I only feed on animals’ cop-out. She suffers from a primal hunger, a junkie’s need, and she can’t help being what she is. Deep down, she even enjoys it! It’s the reason everyone’s so terrified of her. But we can also see that she’s horribly isolated, craves an intimacy she can never have, and is a deeply moral person. Once a character has this kind of internal conflict, you can start to externalise, to ask what kind of supporting characters or situation would help dramatise that tension?
When writing The Wraithbone Phoenix, I needed to figure out what was motivating the main character, a rating thief named Baggit. I considered the 40k fluff. He was once an abhuman soldier within the human Imperium (the gothic theocracy of the Warhammer 40,000 universe), a system that considers him an abomination (albeit one that’s very good at killing people on the Imperium’s behalf).
Now that he’s a freelance criminal living in the filthy hive-city of Varangantua, it stands to reason that he’d be resentful of his past ill treatment. I listened to Malcom X speeches and studied a cautionary essay by Ursula K. Le Guin, until I felt I had a suitable handle on the mindset of not only marginalised rage, but the damage it can do to one’s soul.
That tension – between Baggit wanting to lash out and his not realising how that desire could lead him to his doom – is the central thread that’s going to lead him through the story.
It’s how the character is going to tell me what needs to happen. And the same will go for every other character in the story.
“All drama is conflict.”
Syd Field, Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting (1979)
Once again, the plot isn’t coming from me, as such. It’s coming from what needs to happen.
Sure, I’ve got underlying preferences, sympathies and one or two bias corrections, all of which will show themselves through my creative choices, but the characters are growing mainly from the simple application of story-logic.
I’m writing melodrama and melodrama stands at a remove from the reader. The reader doesn’t (or at least shouldn’t) take it literally, any more than they should see a picture of a pipe, think it’s real and try to smoke it.
Melodrama differs from fable, and from allegories like Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. These modes interface with the reader more consciously and directly. And melodrama certainly isn’t an essay, speech, or blog, in which the author addresses the reader so immediately and didactically that they have no need of characters at all.
For larger-scale projects like this novel, I’ll break out the story board and Post-It notes. The Editor has me placing the act breaks down the left-hand side, the characters’ names and motivations across the top, and the progressive stages of the main character’s arc, along with any ‘ticking clock’ plot elements, down the right-hand side. The Editor has me placing all the tentpoles of the story, the must-have events, the key conversion points for the main character.
But as the underlying structure takes shape, the more the Creator takes control of the Post Its and starts slapping down ever-more crazed suggestions as to how each character thread can clash with another. Some of his ideas are gold, but he also wants the characters to get together and do a musical number.
The Editor is pacing through this blizzard of ideas, hands behind his back, like a homicide detective wrestling with an impenetrable case, piecing the evidence together, lining up the characters’ motives, trying to guide them from act to act. As I stand in the eye of this storm, I’m reminded that the breakdown for all this has got to be finished by Friday and it’s looking like this is going to take me another week at least.
I feel something inside me tighten like a noose.
The only way out of this storm is forward, eyes front. I run through the events on the board over and over until I can feel the characters approaching critical mass. I’m starting to hear voices. I can feel everyone alive and moving around behind this half-finished mosaic of index cards.
I can ‘hear’ Baggit telling me he wouldn’t do that. Ace thief Rozlyn Qik is advising me on how she’d handle that story-knot in the third act. Eastwoodian manhunter Ocastus Forl is expressing a weird sympathy for his latest hostage and the conflict between them wants to move in a direction that’s unexpectedly, but intriguingly paternal. The more I listen to these guys and let them go in the directions they want to go, the more I’m feeling rather than thinking my way forward, and the more the way ahead becomes clear.
Months pass and I’m in the middle of the first draft, about to write another scene. The Editor is fussing over pre-flight routines. God, he’s tedious, but he’s the guy who’s gonna get me through the next six hours’ writing as smoothly as possible. Do I know what everyone wants in this scene? Check. Do I know how they all feel about it? Check. Have I got something trying to stop them from achieving their goals and established some kind of stake? Check and check. Okay, Launch! I move quick and try not to think. I know that if I give myself time to think I’ll never get started.
Into the void of the empty page.
The Creator’s with me, but he’s morphed into my viewpoint character. More than that, I’m inside the character. I am them! If I’m writing from the point of view of Clodde the ogryn, I’ll have maybe watched a two-minute clip of Danny from Withnail & I to get the kind of high-low vocab I want. As I write, I’m talking out loud in Clodde’s serene observational rumble, hunching my shoulders, moving slow. The act of habitation helps me notice what the character would notice and speak how they would speak. But these characters aren’t real. So who the hell am I talking to?
This is what all those other authors are talking about when they say they can hear their characters speak to them. The sense of communion is eerie and exhilarating, and I’ll ride the wave until it decides to crash. I’ll let the viewpoint character dictate the scene as much as they can.
Let them go completely off the fucking rails if they want. The Editor can clean it up later. Haha!
I live the character’s life for them until the kitchen timer I keep beside me rings the sixth hour and I’m done for the day.
Several months later the draft is done and I’m reading through the publisher’s amends. My heart races as I scroll through the track changes, mouth dry. I’m terrified by the possibility that the next amend might take weeks to resolve, or – worse still – break the characters, twist their story into something they don’t want it to be. No one knows these people better than me. No one! The Creator is in tears, his flowing locks in disarray. He somehow manages to look cool, even when he’s clawing at the carpet, screaming like a toddler that his genius is doomed to go forever unrecognised.
I’m trying to ignore him. I can feel the characters quailing, like I’m looking down at them from Olympus. The publisher has just handed me a bunch of thunderbolts and gently suggested where each apocalypse needs to land. The Creator rises in a fervour of rebellion and draws his sword, demanding I email a rebuke that would cow the gods themselves!
The Editor finishes the last of his Earl Grey. He sets the cup and saucer aside and slaps the Creator twice across the face, back and forth. The Creator tumbles into a languid faint that makes him look like he’s posing for Fuseli. The air immediately clears and the Editor is standing beside me. (I’m not sure I’ve ever seen him sit.) He states facts, cold and crisp. The publisher’s every last suggestion is perfectly reasonable. Now read them through again and think about it. Wouldn’t this amend right here make that scene even better?
It now feels like resistance to a little more hard work is the only thing standing in my way. The Editor is right, as usual, and it feels like I’m back writing. The world is mutable again, and the characters are willing to risk their doom once more.
Several more months pass and I’m poring over a comp copy of the novel. I run my hand over the cover, smooth and flawless, and I know the characters’ lives are pulsing away inside this little box of pages. But I wrote them all so long ago that I can’t hear their voices any more. I have to flick through to the end of the book to remind myself what happened. The Creator struggles to recall the characters at all. Like me, he’s more interested in this new story we’re working on. He wants me to go outside and have a sword fight with a tree. The Editor is reading over my shoulder, tutting at every needless adjective and weak verb as I read on.
The good bits feel like they were written by someone else.
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Blood & Thunder: The Life and Art of Robert E. Howard by Mark Finn (2013)
‘I’ve learned I need to treat my characters like people’: Varieties of agency and interaction in Writers’ experiences of their Characters’ Voices, Durham University, John Foxwell, Ben Alderson-Day, Charles Fernyhough, and Angela Woods.
About Anger Ursula K. Le Guin (2014)
Another thought provoking post, thanks. Had you thought about also doing an audio version? These would make great mini-pods and then I could listen to them on my way to work or on my Sunday morning bike ride :D.