I’m certain nearly everyone who loves to read books and follows their favorite authors has heard those authors at some point say, “The character took control.” This is extremely common. In fact, with my own writing, if the characters don’t at some point take control and do unexpected things, then the book isn’t succeeding. The characters need to take on their own life for the author. If they aren’t doing that for the author, then they certainly aren’t coming to life for the reader. And that means the book has failed.
However, I want to talk about something a little more significant than a character suddenly revealing a lifelong passion for poisons, altering the plot and bringing in an added extra (darker?) layer to the character that you’d never considered. What I want to talk about is when the book takes control. Not just a character or set of characters, but the entire book.
You see, this isn’t my first rodeo. I’ve had eight novels published before this, which means that Reaping the Aurora was sold based on a five-page plot synopsis where I spelled out the course of the novel and how this final volume tied up the various threads of the series. It was laid out before the first book in the series, Shattering the Ley, was even written. It was a good plot synopsis, and everything was on track to bring it to fulfillment as expected as I finished off Threading the Needle and prepared to write Reaping.
When I started writing, everything appeared fine. Threads were moving in the direction I’d anticipated. Characters were taking control and revealing little twists and turns in that plot that made it more interesting and gave the novel more depth… until about Chapter 5, when suddenly I began to get a troubling gnawing worry deep in my gut. As I continued writing, that niggling worry grew, and grew, and eventually reared its ugly, fearsome head: my plot synopsis would not work. Oh, the mechanics of the plot synopsis I’d written were fine — I could have forced the novel onto that path and written a good story — but none of the plot threads were pushing in that direction. The more I wrote, the more I realized they wanted to head off in this direction, which was completely different than the direction I’d anticipated. And it wasn’t just a change in venue for the final moments of the novel, the characters still intact. No, no, that would be too simple. It was a complete change in plot and in character arcs. Certain characters took on completely new roles, minor characters rose to the foreground with extremely important plot elements in play, while major characters stepped back. I could see the shifts in focus as I wrote, but here’s the thing… I couldn’t see the entirety of how the new plot played out. In fact, I was blind to almost everything.
This is where editors play a key role in the writing process (assuming you already have an editor for the project, otherwise, it might be an agent instead). I happened to be attending a convention in an upcoming weekend and would be meeting with my editor for a typical lunch or dinner. At this lunch, I brought up the fact that the book wasn’t going where I expected, that in fact, the entirety of the plot synopsis was being tossed out the window. Editors can get twitchy about these types of announcements, but Sheila Gilbert at DAW is amazing. She asked what I was thinking and, since I was still feeling things out, I tentatively brought up where I thought the plot was headed and the role a few characters were going to play. Sheila knows that I’m an “organic” writer, meaning I tend not to do outlines or synopses and typically let the book lead me where it may, so she’s used to me being somewhat vague and uncertain. With typical aplomb, she said, “Ah, but then this character can do that, which would utilize his talents much better than in the previous synopsis.”
It was an epiphany. No, it was more than an epiphany. I didn’t come to a single, sudden, gut-wrenching realization in that moment, the entire end of the book fell into my lap. All of the plot threads that my characters had been pushing for fell into place with nice sharp little clicks, all because of a single sentence from my editor. I believe I gasped. I know I gaped. And for a brief moment, there at the restaurant table, my mind went elsewhere as the thrust of the novel shifted in my head. I was stunned — about how everything fit, about how each and every character had a part to play, about how all of it seemed so perfect and was supported by everything that had happened in the first two books in the series. It was as if I’d already known this was the real ending as I wrote those two books, but it was only now that my hind-brain had decided to reveal it to me.
Don’t get me wrong, the hind-brain has tricked me in the past, revealing something about a character or a plot thread that I hadn’t realized until the moment I wrote it. It happens all the time. In some sense, I write with a blind faith in my hind-brain, because it hasn’t failed me so far. But this… this was different. This was on a whole new level, leading to a place I’d never suspected, regarding the entirety of the book. This literally blew my mind. Or at least my fore-brain. And it was good! Better than the plot synopsis I’d written. The hind-brain almost always comes up with something better than what you’d planned. And now my fore-brain has much higher respect for the hind-brain, even though the respect was already pretty high.
So, at this stage, I must fully admit that I have no control of my own books. Not just the characters, but the plot itself. There’s a pretense that I’m in control, one that I cling to as I write, one that I believed in during the majority of those first eight books, but now… now I think the hind-brain has shaken that pretense to the core. I have no control.
And I think it’s the coolest thing in the world.
Joshua Palmatier‘s Ley series is published by DAW Books. The third novel, Reaping the Aurora is published today.
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[…] Palmatier discusses the issue of the characters running off with story in a guest post on Civilian Reader. He had it much worse than my little hiccup. They didn’t change just one scene, but the whole […]