• You & Your Character: Who Holds the Reins?

    Posted Posted by David Duhr in ABCs of Writing     Comments 55 comments

    Discussion questions: Do you sometimes look at your characters as entities outside of your control, or do your characters never do or say anything you haven’t given strict permission for? Do you control your characters, do your characters control you, or do you and your characters operate together?


    Today I was talking through a short story with a client, Charity Marie, during one of our regular coaching sessions. Charity’s story ends in an unpredictable and violent way, and as we chatted about this, she said, “I didn’t know the story would end that way.”

    Happens often enough, right? Even if we write from an outline, a story can spin off in a direction of its own.

    But then Charity said something that really caught my ear. Talking about her protagonist, and the action she takes at the end, Charity said, “She really surprised me by doing that.”


    I know a lot of writers who talk as if their characters operate on their own, making decisions separately from the writer. Almost like the writer is merely an observer, typing out the actions of real people as they happen.

    For some writers, a character won’t have a thought or take an action that isn’t already tightly planned. Others are more willing to loosen the reins a bit and follow their whims. Which, in some cases, means ceding some measure of control to their characters.


    There’s no right or wrong; like (almost) always, it’s a case of following whatever approach works best for you. But I was curious about what Charity said, and I wanted to throw it out to the group.

    Do you sometimes look at your characters as entities outside of your control, making decisions and taking actions separately from you? Are you ever surprised by your characters?

    Or do your characters never do or say anything without your own forethought and your strict permission?

    Do you control your characters, or do your characters control you? Or do you and your characters operate together?

    Let’s talk about it below.


    WriteByNight co-founder David Duhr is fiction editor at the Texas Observer and co-host of the Yak Babies podcast, and has written about books for the Dallas Morning News, Electric Literature, Publishing Perspectives, and others.

    WriteByNight is a writers’ service dedicated to helping you achieve your creative potential and literary goals. We work with writers of all experience levels working in all genres, nationwide and worldwide. If you have a 2020 writing project you’d like a little help with, take a look at our book coachingprivate instruction and writer’s block counseling services. If you have a manuscript that’s ready for some editorial care, check out our various critiquing, editorial, and proofing servicesJoin our mailing list and get a FREE writer’s diagnostic, “Common problems and SOLUTIONS for the struggling writer.”

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    Charity Starrett

    Ugh I wanted to give this five stars not 4. Sorry David, won’t let me change it. Was on my phone. Great article!


    Hi David, Another great topic! I don’t have a lot of experience writing fiction, but the very long story (novel) I’ve been working on for a long time came to me out of the blue, and what I had was a kernel—a girl, a dog, a K9 cop, the death of the ideal dog and their having to learn to love a much less than perfect stray dog, as he teaches them to love their much-less-than-perfect selves. I know for certain that I did not consciously create these characters. They came to me. All of a sudden. I wonder sometimes… Read more »


    Oh, I see Mel is 94 years old, but I also found a fan club address, so, hey, I’ll send him a note and ask. You never know. Re the split, if you read my response to Elissa I’ve wondered if fiction writing is actually multiple personality disorder but ordered. As to how much of my characters is me, definitely the two dogs. Otherwise, probably at least a little bit of me in each of the females; and I share at least one major characteristic with the little girl in the story–not so sure about the male ones. I’d have… Read more »


    I think I got so attached because I was discovering these characters for the first time and falling in love. Maybe you don’t feel that deeply because you already know them so well, since they’re based on people you already know?

    Barbara Mealer

    No matter what I do, outline, chapter plan, etc. my characters say nope, not going there and take off on their own. It is frustration but then again, I find that some of the places where they take me can be a lot of fun with surprises and a better story than I started out with.

    Barbara Mealer

    Not a problem. A sentence or an idea is my outline for chapter. In the book I’m working on, one chapter was Battle….it kept getting moved down the list, but then there was Si’ltor who showed up. Heiswig, De’alclan the whole Eloclatan race….You learn to add, subtract, move and rearrange things. One of the reasons I love Scrivner so much. I was a MS Word fan, but Scrivner is so easy to find things and move things and redo that plan you had on the fly. This book started off with Jade, Vil’gande, Rodar, Thorthan as ongoing characters. It has… Read more »


    Discussion questions: Do you sometimes look at your characters as entities outside of your control, or do your characters never do or say anything you haven’t given strict permission for? Do you control your characters, do your characters control you, or do you and your characters operate together? I tend toward middle grounds, so my characters and I cooperate. Even so, they do take directions I had not laid out in advance. But I’m not a seat-of-the-pantser, I have to at least mostly know where I’m going when I write. That includes characters. Still, in my current work, which features… Read more »


    I am aware when chars change directions and I let them do it. They have to stay within my story construct, though, else I begin writing a different story. That may be good, but I don’t see how and author can create a coherent work if they let it spiral out of control. Or maybe it just spirals for some authors and it works. I can’t work that way.

    Elizabeth Brent

    For me, it seems to be a cooperative effort.
    I take my characters places and put them in situations, but once they get there, they often behave in unexpected ways. Sometimes I let them have their way, and sometimes I apologize to them and explain that what they have done or said just won’t work in the story. They usually adapt pretty well.

    John Liebling

    I am very much a seat of the pantser, and yet the editing process is much more structured. The big issues for me is clarity and converting more of the telling into showing. As I edit I find the dialog goes in different directions, and that becomes a cause and effect, because now I need to change other dialog and scenes to match the new stuff. My first draft was a very different book. What I have now took shape after the second draft. My creative flow has changed. I am now reaper of death…killing off scenes and dialog from… Read more »

    david lemke

    If you don’t understand your characters, than they can’t surprise you and they are too easily controlled. This sounds wrong, But if you truly grok your characters, and have invested enough time in their development and your understanding of their motives and processes, they can surprise you and the readers better. Why is that possible? Consider your real friends; they can surprise you. How, if you know them so well? Because people are complicated, while cardboard cutouts are not. Real people can do unexpected things. “I can’t believe she did that!” But after a few moments thinking about it, you… Read more »


    I like the pawn analogy.

    Cathy Neumann

    I think I might grow through my characters because I feel as if I am evolving with them in the process of dealing with their problems. I think that might be getting too involved. Standing back and getting a more objective perspective about them makes them individuals apart from me. I have to practice that objectivity more completely and consistently to keep that surprise from happening. Having said that, when all the issues are presented in the story, sometimes the answers are different from what I had plotted for the character. The storyline resembles life in that we plan, but… Read more »

    Hans De Léo

    What a good topic!
    Only after reading the other posts, I’m not sure I have anything to add. I will say that if your characters don’t take on a life of their own, it could be an indication that you’re manipulating them into your predetermined plot line. One exercise I’ve used once or twice to get to know my main protagonist is to interview them. The questions and answers will likely never make it into your story, but your character will become more natural and believable.

    Barbara Mealer

    I started a character journal for the next book I plan on doing. My main character keeps calling me a dunce because I don’t know her name. (working on it though) She’s pretty strong and specific in her like and dislikes and has already shown an independent streak. I picked up the idea from James Scott Bell in a class I did of his. It seems to be working pretty good. should have probably used it with jade and saved myself a lot of headaches when she does something unexpected.

    Barbara Mealer

    no, it is the character. you let them talk and talk and talk until you are that character and you understand them and who they are and what they want and all their faults. what they will do or won’t do. It gets you in touch with that character and their voice and who they really are. I’m also doing one for the villain. There are a lot of writings by these villain so they aren’t that hard to figure out. There are several other major characters I’ll be working on over the next few weeks too. I’m getting ready… Read more »

    Barbara Mealer

    I write a lot of things that will never show up in the book. I found the charactwr sheets unuseful. The journal you become that character. You become privvy to. all sots of things from their past including how they feel, think, act, etc. You can ask questions butbI find it bettwr to just let them talk…stream of consciousness works. It really helped on thw fantasy book in getting Jade to be this sifferent character.

    José Skinner

    I guess if they’re “flat” characters you control them (or they’re by definition predictable, at least), but “round” characters, in the process of their “rounding,” have more agency, or seem to. I don’t know what you guys think of these terms, though.

    Elissa Malcohn

    My characters surprise me all the time. Years ago, one whom I was going to kill off had fought me tooth and nail for his life and went on to develop in all sorts of wondrous ways through subsequent books. Another took over a scene playing in my head as I wrote, in a way that had taken my breath away. On one occasion when I was stuck, I did something I had never done before or since: I interviewed my protagonist. We met in the woods outside her birth village, even though she was far from that location in the story and… Read more »


    ooh, I am on vacation this week and I am going to read that Watkins book! Thank you. I have wondered whether fiction writing is a socially acceptable form of multiple personality disorder. Flannery O’Connor was my mother’s favorite author, and I inherited all of my mother’s hundreds of books–both a blessing and a burden. Maybe it’s time I finally read her Flannerys. Thanks for your post.

    Elissa Malcohn

    I did it only the one time. I don’t remember what I asked (it was 15 years ago), but in general we were shooting the breeze and I wanted to know things like what happens here? What does this mean? Why is so-and-so doing this? What do you want? Why? Etc.

    Elissa Malcohn

    Yes, but temporarily. Cartoonist (and MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant recipient) Alison Bechdel sometimes took her characters out of their dramas and placed them “backstage” as it were, outside of their world (I remember one outside-the-story strip in which they were playing poker). She gave her “actors” personalities that were considerably different from those of the characters-within-the-drama. Then, after their “break,” the characters-as-actors returned to the story. These extra strips didn’t appear in series, but in books that dealt more with her process, like The Indelible Alison Bechdel. That book’s cover, which I love, beautifully spells out the author/character relationship. Bechdel has drawn herself on… Read more »


    They sort of tell me their stories as we go along. Ok, he’s Snidely Whiplash. Mean, evil, bad and nasty.
    Q- Who’s your daddy, Snide?
    A- Boorish R. Whiplash IV, heir to The Whiplash Soup Thickener fortune.
    Q- Why are you so mean, evil, bad and nasty?
    A- My career as an interpreter of Mendelssohn was thwarted.
    Q- What kind of movies, cars, flowers and donuts do you prefer?
    A- Rom-coms, vintage Lincolns, Raffelsia Arnoldii, chocolate glazed.
    Etc etc etc


    Kevin, you are just so….. Kevin.
    Do you know where I can get some of that soup thickener?


    I seem to be better at character-based stories than plot-driven ones. If i try sticking too closely to a plot i find myself trying to shoe-horn cliched people into the box. But if I explore the details of a character, they often suggest plot aspects. Everyone’s a mosaic and the colors that don’t fit are the most interesting (because people always have untapped depths even if you think you know them well). I’m actually not sure if I’ve found a methodology that works for me or if I’m too inexperienced a writer to know how to plot well.


    Tony Earley had a story (I don’t recall the title) about the semi-pro wrestling scene in a small city in the South. Boring Corporate Drone Guy is a fan of Friday Night Mayhem at the local bar. The champ is Bob Noxious, complete with blue mohawk and nipple tassles. The backstories of the disparate colorful characters is the story. This is the type of thing I end up doing ( though not as well as TE). Maybe I read too much Charles Bukowski…


    Good topic, David. If we write original prose, sometimes we need to take our characters (and us readers) out of our comfort zone. The human condition can sometimes prove to be unpredictable. People do things – extraordinary, imbecilic, brilliant, predictable, unexpected – all the time. When writing, it’s fun to lead a character into a presumably predictable outcome, then, in a sudden twist, lead them elsewhere either by choice or surrounding conditions. It reminds me of those stories that give you a selection of choices to be made before your character can advance. Instead of 2 or 3 choices, as… Read more »


    Kurt Vonnegut said something to the effect of “tell what happened. Not why. Your characters may not know why so how could you know?”


    Reading some of these great posts made me wonder whether characters could be unrealized aspects of our own selves–the career we didn’t choose, the roads not taken, that hero might be the kid you were who never could stand up to bullies, or whatever. The villain could be doing things you were tempted to do but didn’t, or that someone did to you. I have heard that at age seven we are the most brilliant we will ever be–that our brains are operating on all cylinders and we are capable of doing hundreds of different things, but then society, parents,… Read more »


    I ‘pantsed’ this story to the point where I needed to plan what would need to happen in between to connect the dots, but I still get surprised by what my brain comes up with concerning my characters and what they say and do. Usually I don’t get pulled in new directions because of their actions, but a lot of the things are more unplanned (unconscious?). Lately I’ve been bringing together threads that my brain laid out a while ago I hadn’t even been aware of, making connections that are so obvious now. Our brains are so awesome, and we… Read more »

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