Kathryn Arnold is working with me on my story craft series. She’s a talented, young writer working on an intriguing fantasy. When I put out the call for apprentices to work with me on the craft books, Kathryn’s response showed that she’s perceptive and thoughtful. She got what I was looking for and articulated what she hoped to get out of our work together in a way that left no doubt she’d be a fantastic team member. She’s also got mad organizational skills!
Today, I’m pleased to introduce you to Kathryn, who is going to share with you some of her thoughts about living characters, that strange phenomenon when your characters hijack your story.
Ever have your characters take a deep breath and tell you no?
I love that moment, when my characters take control of the narrative. I feel like I am taking down their actions, and no longer directing their moves. I call this phenomenon living characters, when they seem to stomp their feet, cop an attitude, and problem solve all on their own. It happens when I’m barely thinking, just letting words pour out of me. I am no longer entwined in vocabulary and perfecting grammar. I place my characters in the scene and let them work their way out of it. I’m always surprised and gratified by the experience, and usually that is where the writing sparkles. When characters are living, they are fascinating. They don’t feel manipulated or controlled. My authorial voice disappears in the depth and weave of the characters.
I find that this happens most when I am really prepared to write. I have a scene with a beginning, middle and end. I have an emotional arc and a conflict that will drive the narrative. That’s when my characters are most likely to take over.
This is where I usually lose people. They ask things like, aren’t you the writer? How can something you created do something you weren’t expecting? How can they surprise you?
I am the writer! And these characters aren’t doing anything I didn’t create them to do. I created characters with depth of humanity. They have their own desires, dreams, goals, and motivations. They have stories and reasons for going after their goals. They have experiences that help them to problem solve through the situations I put them in. So when I place rich characters within a setting and introduce the conflict, I can allow them to act as they would naturally. And when I let them speak and act as they were designed to, it makes the scene real, tangible, and intricately beautiful. These moments aren’t forced. They flow out of characters crafted with love and attention to detail.
Some of my favorite and most amazing scenes have come out of this intersection of plot point and character motivation. Such as the time my characters wrote themselves into the middle of a riot I didn’t even know was bubbling just below the surface. Or how they wrote themselves back out of that riot. When I place characters into a scene and they create their own conflict, their actions make it their own. They surprise me with their personalities, their wits, and the situations they get themselves into or out of.
My characters come to life. They breathe. They move. They think. They make the story a rich and entrancing experience. They bond readers to them.
So next time your characters look at you through the pages and insist they do it their way, I challenge you to let them!
Kathryn Arnold is a quirky and goofy creative who spends far too much time organizing herself and eavesdropping on others. When she isn’t correcting people’s mistakes when they least expect it, she can be found furiously typing away on her own novel, which she hopes will someday see the light of day.
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