Characters running wild

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No, this hasn’t magically transformed into a gun blog. The rifle above is the Lee-Enfield SMLE, the tool used by soldiers of the British Empire in WW1 and 2. It features prominently in this alternate history I’m messing with. That’s what I’m talking about today, this writing process.

So John Birmingham recently discussed on his really cool Patreon page the tendency for characters to grow a mind of their own while you write, for them to have stubborn lives of their own while you are hammering out a manuscript.

Truer, and more timely, words were never spoken. This alt history I’m writing is a case in point. I keep thinking that something’s wrong, and I guess I need to let the control-freak side of me slip a little and realize that this is natural, a price of doing business.

This is my fourth independent novel, so to a certain extent I’ve been down this road before. But each work is its own deal. My first book was a study in “hold onto my beer and watch this.” I didn’t write an outline, didn’t do any character studies, had no plan. Frankly I’m surprised it turned out as well as it did. It was a good learning experience, in any case. By book two, I realized I needed a plan. So I developed one. The book was better, but not quite there. Finally, with the last book, Immolation, I thought I had it down to a science.

Kinda. I made a detailed outline, more or less stuck to the plan, and executed. Yeah, there were a couple of chapters that took me by surprise, but overall the characters did what I had envisioned. I plotted their fate from A to B, and that’s more or less what happened.

In the period between my last book and this one, I’ve worked on a couple of collaborations and gained more experience and expert advice; this has helped one hell of a lot.

So, I started in on this alt history. I figured this would be a done deal. Did the right thing and wrote a 4000 word outline, came up with a plan for my main characters and started to write.

Wow, was I in for a surprise. I’m 25k into this novel (with a planned 100k length), and I’ve got characters running all over the place. My protagonist has taken on a personality and a life of his own, his sidekick too. Their rifle squad has turned into a crew of oddballs and misfits (kind of like a real squad). Their fates, which were sealed, have become debatable, and oh yes, my original plan for a B-story has been grenaded by adding a female character who I do not want to become a disposable (yawn) love interest.

My characters are running around like four year olds at a daycare birthday party. Every time I sit down at the keyboard, I know I’m in for a surprise. I’ve gotten to a point where the only fates that I know for sure are my protagonist and his buddy. Everybody else lives or dies apparently at whim.

Kind of like an actual war, really.

So maybe that’s the game. If I don’t know when the bullet will hit, neither will my readers. Maybe subconsciously I think that that’s the way it should be when writing about war- death, wounds, and trauma happen at random times to pretty nice people.

But as an author, I should have more control over this process. I dunno, maybe I’m wrong. If it’s stupid and it works, I guess it ain’t stupid.

Now, don’t get me wrong, this is not the struggle I had this winter with “Demons,” my Stalingrad of projects. In fact, this is the opposite, I’m enjoying this process a lot. I’m just mildly shocked by how unruly my characters are acting. The important part is that the end result is enjoyable and readable. I guess.

We’ll see how that works out.

And we’ll see how these characters struggle.

3 thoughts on “Characters running wild

  1. I’m glad you’re enjoying the writing again. It sucks when something that just isn’t working.

    I find it very interesting how different authors work on the writing process. David Drake evidently writes really comprehensive outlines – to the point where they can be up to 40% of the length of the book. His final writing pass adds the colour, but the story plan is all there before. At the other extreme, Lois McMaster Bujold while working on the current scene has figured out the next one or two, and might slightly modify the last one if needed. I guess it is what works for the author.

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    • Thanks! I am enjoying this one. I guess adhering to an outline really varies with me. While writing “Immolation,” I only deviated somewhat from the outline. In this alt-history, I’m only very loosely following it. I find myself adding characters and chapters, and hopefully it works out. We’ll see what the betas have to say, and later on the readers.

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  2. Had a similar experience where a very minor character wouldn’t shut up and kept sticking his head into every scene. Luckily he also provided the resolution to a lot of issues in the piece.

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