When The Character Runs The Show

JT Ellison

Last week I wrote about Michael Connelly, and a question I asked him that garnered a stern look and made me feel silly for asking it. I asked if Harry Bosch ever did or said anything that surprised him, and his answer was a definite no. I told this story to another writing friend, one whose judgment I truly respect, and her first words were, good question.

It got me thinking. How well do I really know my protagonist?

Taylor Jackson is the homicide lieutenant for Nashville Metro. She is young, tall, blonde, sharp and witty, tough as nails, and the kind of girl a gentlemen would love to sit down and have a beer with. I’ve planned her that way, want her to not be me, per se, but an extension of me. I want Taylor to have the best of everything, the funniest lines, the deepest courage, the strength of character that ensures her success.

So how is it this creature of my imagination can do or say things that surprise me?

Like I said, I’ve been thinking. And I realized that she doesn’t. I’ve been selling myself short in this department, assuming that more experienced writers are better equipped to explain their motivations, their process, their insights. Realizing that I’m just as connected with my protagonist was a relief, as well as a revelation. And a reminder to quit underestimating myself already.

I’m working on my third book with Taylor. I struggled with her character in the first book. I really didn’t like her very much. I think she was too strong, she was so damn capable and brilliant she was nearly a caricature of herself. Taylor was my imagination’s perception of what a successful female cop would be like, but I’d never had any contact with real women cops. I have a lot of male contacts, and I know Taylor appeals to them, but I was worried that she wouldn’t be realistic because I had nothing to base her on. I actually had planned to kill her off in a dramatic ending. All because I’d built this wisp of an idea into a person, and she kept doing things I didn’t plan for.

By book 2, ATPG, Taylor had mellowed a bit. She’s in love, practically against her will because there’s a whisper of neediness that goes along with being devoted to someone. She’s grown as a character, has fleshed out. I don’t hate her any more. I’ve embraced her, flaws and all. I’ve finally realized that she does and says the things she does because that’s who she is. Who I’ve made her into. An extension of some part of my psyche that respects women who are so capable, so strong that they don’t need.

Once I realized this, I finally figured out what Connelly meant. Bosch doesn’t surprise him because he created the character, with deliberate strokes of the pen. He is in control, not the book.

So this is where he and I differ. I’m in control of Taylor now, know what she’s going to say in a particular situation, know how she’s going to feel, how she’s going to whip her hair out of its ponytail and put it back up when she’s frustrated, know just the moment she’d say something to diffuse a situation. It’s the story that surprises me.

Remember that friend from earlier? We talked about this too – the process of creating the story. She does research, copious amounts of research, then writes, knowing full well where things are headed.

I, on the other hand, get a concept, try to write down an outline, get too enthusiastic to plan and start writing, do the first ten or fifteen chapters and realize nope, there needs to be something else, something different. For each book I’ve written, those openings end up being the scenes which bridge to the climax. It’s strange, and I can’t exactly explain it, but that’s what happens.

This is why I don’t like to outline, because the story doesn’t always go how I want it to. Which means I’m doing quite a bit of subconscious work on the manuscript in addition to writing it. That’s not all that bad, in my mind.

Maybe when I have 12 books under my belt, I’ll be able to feel like I’m in complete and utter control. I’m envious of writers who say they have the next eight books planned out, know exactly what’s going to happen in their series. For now though, I’m going to go with it, see where the story takes me, see what Taylor is going to do next.

Wine of the Week — a little bit of Spanish goodness
Carrizal Roija Riserva
Marques de Riscal Sauvignon Blanc

15 thoughts on “When The Character Runs The Show

  1. JDRhoades

    The only times my characters have ever surprised me is when they’ve “refused” to do something I was trying to get them to do. I’d try to write Jack or Marie doing or saying soemthing in a particular scene and the words just wouldn’t come, or when they did they looked silly.

    Which meant, of course, that I was trying to get them to do something I knew deep down wasn’t comaptible with my vision of them and that I was going in the wrong direction with the plot.

  2. J.B. Thompson

    Excellent insight, JT.

    The debate on outlines and plotting out series in advance will never go away – there will always be those writers on both sides who argue the merits of their positions, and I’ve read books from both kinds of writers that I’ve enjoyed equally. In the end, it doesn’t matter whether a writer outlines or flies with the story as it develops – what matters is that we know our characters well enough to involve them in stories that keep our readers turning those pages, wanting to get to know them almost as well as we do. If they react differently to a certain situation than we thought they would, perhaps it’s our own reaction to the situation that we need to re-evaluate. A very wise writer I know (no names, but her initials are JT Ellison) once said that writer’s block is nothing more than your story telling you there’s something wrong. So, is it the characters that are speaking to us in those situations, telling us, as JD said, that we’re going in the wrong direction based on our knowledge of them?

    Taylor is an exceptional character, and I know she’ll grow and develop in her stories as you grow writing them.

  3. David Terrenoire

    Maybe it’s the psychosis talking, but I’m continually surprised by my characters.

    I was on the phone yesterday with one of the producers of the low-budget film I’m writing and I warned him that the film wasn’t quite the action adventure he might be expecting. The script is funny. I said, it’s not that I intentionally write funny, it’s just that the people in my head are funny people.

    Like I said, perhaps it’s the psychosis.

  4. Tasha Alexander

    My characters absolutely surprise me.

    Not because they’re beyond my control. Our characters aren’t simply reflections of the author–they react, think, are motivated in different ways than we are. And that means that they do things we wouldn’t. And for me, at least, they wind up shocking the hell out of me.

    Yeah, I created them. I’m the one choosing to have them act in character, as it were, so maybe surprise isn’t the right word, exactly. But that’s sure how it feels when you’re typing and looking at the screen and thinking “Why is she saying that???????”

  5. Iden Ford

    My wife always starts out with a strong story outline, character descriptions, lots of research into the place, and theme, but then something happens along the way as the story starts to come alive. New characters emerge and then behave in cerrtain ways, original plot ideas change, and eventually the story becomes what it is. I’ve never heard her say “i know exactly where I am going and and where the book is going to end up.” I always hear her say, ” I have the ideas down for where I am headed, but once I get into it, the story seems to write itself and I just go with it.” You gotta be open to the changes that emerge as a writer, because that’s the creative process. A lot like life eh?

  6. pari noskin taichert

    This is a great post, JT. I don’t think my characters so much surprise me as they insist on being consistent. Everytime, I try to write them into something inappropriate for their personas, the scenes come out rotten.

    But, I will say this. Once, when I was doing a character conversation with Sasha, she totally blew me away. I’d sat down on the bed with a notebook in hand and wrote,”Which of my books about you do you like best?” Then I read the question out loud.

    This may sound woo-woo, but it’s really a creativity exercise . . . I mean it.

    Sasha answered, “THE CLOVIS INCIDENT.”

    Now, I felt that BELEN was so much better and was really shocked. I said, “Why?”

    “Because it’s the only one that’s been published so far, you idiot,” replied my demure character.

    How often do we get scolded by our own creations?

  7. Brett Battles

    I think you are on to something with how the characters don’t necessarily surprise you, but the story does. That’s definitely what happens for me. The twists that suddenly come to mind often catch me off guard. How my main characters – Quinn, Orlando and Nate – deal with them, is always consistent with the people I think they are. The characters that DO surprise me are the secondary characters, those whose lives and backgrounds I know some of, but not nearly as much as I know of Quinn’s. They are the wild cards, and I love when they throw a wrench into things.

  8. JT Ellison

    Ah, Brett, that’s just it. I had a scene a couple of weeks ago that the character was supposed to be a victim of the killer, but when she was discovered, she opened her eyes and asked for help. In Spanish. WTF? I realized that was the solution that bridged two subplots, but wow, I didn’t know it was going to happen. That’s when the writing is fun, at least to me.

  9. Elaine

    Marvelous subject, J.T.!

    Who’s writing the book? You? Your characters, or that ambiguous plot that you follow down that long, dark tunnel? For me – it’s all the above. I like to think of each story as a collaboration.

    To outline, or not to outline. Some can, some can’t and then there is the rebel in some of us who simply won’t be bound by a set of actions set down before the real writing begins. I’m not a linear thinker. I like to hoof it and go where the hell my imagination takes me.

    I love Brett’s mention of the ‘wild cards’! Some of my favorite characters showed up that way.


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