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Monday, November 21, 2011

Characters Behaving Badly

“The Well of Lost Plots is where vague ideas ferment into sketchy plans. This is the Notion Nursery: The Word Womb. Go down there and you’ll see plot outlines coalescing on the shelves like so many primordial life forms. The spirits of roughly sketched characters flit about the corridors in search of plot and dialogue before they are woven into the story. If they get lucky, the book finds a publisher and rises into the Great Library above.” from Lost in a Good Book, by Jasper Fforde.

Last week. You will recall, I was re-reading The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde. When I finished, I couldn’t help myself and picked up its sequel, Lost in a Good Book. In this volume, Thursday Next is moonlighting as a Jurisfiction operative, policing crimes which take place within books. Not crimes like murder or theft, mind you. As apprentice to the intrepid Miss Havisham on occasional leave from Great Expectations, Thursday faces such duties as preventing minor characters, bored with their roles, from book-hopping without the proper permissions.  In the world of Jurisfiction, books and their characters have little to do with their authors, who seem almost incidental. 

This is how I feel when I’m writing. The characters are stubborn at best and out of control at their very worst. They don’t seem to care what direction I think I’m going; they just do what they please. Unless you write fiction, you have no idea how disconcerting this can be.

I didn’t experience this phenomenon until my second book, High Spirits at Harroweby. My protagonist, Selinda Harroweby (who was to have been modeled on William Congreve’s poem about “Pious Selinda”) has just fled to her chamber in a temper when there is a tap at her door. I hadn’t planned this, but thought perhaps the entry of a trusted servant would be a good opportunity to reveal back story. Instead, in walks a little girl in a nightcap. I had no idea who she was as first, but I soon learned that she was Selinda’s little sister, Lucy – and she had to be worked into the plot.

This happens to writers all the time:

It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.
-          William Faulkner
One of my standard -- and fairly true -- responses to the question as to how story ideas come to me is that story ideas only come to me for short stories. With longer fiction, it is a character (or characters) coming to visit, and I am then obliged to collaborate with him/her/it/them in creating the story.
- Roger Zelazny
On my one and only longish story my characters surprised me several times by explaining to me in words of one syllable how they should behave and what their back story was. It surprised me at the time. I suspect it's universal.
  - Geoff (from a post on a website for transgender writers)
It’s good to know I’m not alone, because it happened again this week. I am working on another mystery, The Ghost Doll. My protagonist, Liz Venables, is a sculptor. In the opening scene, she is working on a new piece for an installation. She is hanging upside from an overhead pipe and wielding a blowtorch to reshape some wire mesh. This sort of thing is hard enough to describe without stretching the reader’s credulity to the snapping point, but all of a sudden in walks someone – man or woman I’m not sure – who greets Liz, “Hey there, monkey girl?” Some character I haven’t planned for has just walked into the novel. Friend? Sibling? Soon to be ex?  No one else spouts that kind of talk.

I certainly have to stop and re-think now. S/he’s here for a reason and will just have to continue the scene to find out what I need to do to the plot. Like Thursday Next, I am stuck in the Well of Lost Plots. Chapter I is going to take a lot longer than I thought!


  1. And, on the counterpioint, the fact that my characters are NOT behaving badly means my novel hasn't really come alive yet. It's all working out as planned - BOOORRRRRING

  2. You're right, of course, Michael. Just a little galling to know that it's the book and its people being creative,and dragging me along whining!