One of the unnerving (and rewarding) things about writing is the way your characters take on a life of their own. I ‘m often surprised by what those people do. I thought I knew them. I had a character sketch written for each one. But once I start writing, they take charge and go in a direction I never anticipated.
That’s because much of the process of writing relies on intuition. Intuition is a way of thinking. It is not necessarily inferior to logical thinking; it is certainly less simple and clear, and it can go right off the rails into superstition, paranoia, or willful ignorance, but when informed and harnessed, intuition is powerful.
Intuition, when it works, is not ignorance. A good intuitive sense relies on a huge amount of knowledge and the connections between all the things you know.
For example, as an adult, I learned to fence, a sport that is technically and tactically complex. I tried to read up on the subject and memorize the nine (or ten) parries and all the targets.* That didn’t work. I still froze up and did nothing but dumb things in a bout. But when I had been fencing for a long while, I was suddenly able to act, and my actions made sense – but they were sensible in hindsight.
Thus, when your characters start doing unexpected things, it’s still you writing them. It’s just that you have gotten to know them so well that your writing is more intuitive, and they have become more interesting.
Let your characters live.
In my first novel, a character who was supposed to be a minor one turned into a major one. He liked to give and receive pain, he was cynical, and he had killed his own parents, but he became a reluctant ally of the protagonist and played a pivotal role in the book.
He didn’t start out that way. He was just a pretty blond guy in an early scene who reminded me of Cary Elwes in Princess Bride, so I referred to a picture of Dread Pirate Roberts whenever I wanted to imagine him acting or speaking.† But once animated, he turned wayward, and, once I recognized it, I gave him free rein.
The same has happened to me in all my stories. A character becomes more nuanced, often darker, and begins to live in his scenes. I’ve actually written a novel (which will probably never see publication) whose protagonist is a disobedient minor character in someone else’s book. The author is futilely trying to kill her off, but she won’t comply.
How do you know when your characters are getting out of hand and you have to pull them back? When you start to laugh while you’re writing. That’s a good sign for me. If even I think a scene is funny, someone is usually doing something out of character and needs to back up.
*Children are faster learners. That’s not necessarily because they’re smarter. It’s because they are learning machines who are learning all the time, but it’s also because don’t know any better.‡
†Have a photo of someone to refer to when you are creating characters. It can be a movie actor, a performer, or another public figure, or it can be some anonymous person whose picture happens to fit your general idea. Doing that means you don’t try too hard to describe them physically, a trap many beginning writers fall into. § You already know what they look like, and your reader should be the one imagining them.
‡ We make the mistake of thinking kids are more technologically literate, often, when what they are is more willing to do dumb things and see what happens. Kids do lots of things utterly wrong with technology, and can screw up a computer more ways than you can imagine, plus their understanding of the digital world is incredibly wrongheaded. That doesn’t stop them.
§ Some writers can get away with giving a character “golden eyes” and “rippling muscles.” They can also describe a person’s hair style, face shape, and skin in detail without making the reader uneasy and annoyed. You are not that writer (unless you need the word count to meet your daily quota). If you do that, go back and take out all the detailed descriptions after you win NaNoWriMo and before you show the manuscript to anyone.