We've all heard it. Whether it was from one of your writer friends talking about their new project or the latest bestselling author sitting on Oprah's couch, you've heard it "I didn't write the story, I just started it and my characters took it from there!" or, my personal favorite, "My protagonist made me do it!"
Now, if you're a cynic like me, statements like this make you roll your eyes. They're characters for crying out loud, figments of your imagination. Of course, they should feel real and it's fun to pretend they're real, but they don't really have a mind of their own. Surely they're not capable of deciding that they want their fictional lives to go in a different direction and take over the story.
We can wave our logic around and talk about how writer's block is a myth all we like, but even the most jaded "inspiration is overrated" writer has to admit that sometimes it does feel like your story is coming to you by magic. I can't say how many times I've been muddling through my story, just putting words on the page, when suddenly Creative Guy (who, for the record, I do realize is imaginary) comes into the room and drops a brilliant idea on my desk. This new concept is fresh and unexpected, yet somehow manages to tie back to something earlier in the story as if I'd been planning it all along. It's almost enough to make me wonder if my story has always existed in its complete form and has waited for centuries before finally choosing me as the person it will bestow itself upon. Emphasis there on almost.
So, can a character really take over a story? While I can't say I've ever had a character take over my typing fingers and force me to write a scene a certain way (should something like this ever occur, I will check myself into a mental institution immediately), I do believe that a well-developed character can take some decisions out of the hands of the writer. Magic? Nope, it's rather simple actually. If a character has sufficient depth, the writer knows that there are certain things that the character simply wouldn't do. In fact, in some circumstances there's only one thing that the character would do. While the writer is in no way physically forced to write a scene a certain way, he or she will know that they're going against the character. Most importantly, though, the reader will know that the character wouldn't really do that--not a good thing. So the writer's hands are tied. They either need to go back and change something about the character to make this choice credible or they just go along with the character's natural action and see where it leads. Sometimes this new path turns the story in a whole different, but much better, direction. I believe this is what people mean when they say their protagonist "took over."
For those of you who were hoping I'd prove that there really is an easy way to get the novel written, I'm afraid you'll have to look elsewhere. I've tried leaving my novels untouched for many months... unfortunately I have yet to peek in and find my characters have been writing in my absence. I have found a way to get them all to show up and lend me a hand, though...
More on that next week. ;)