Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Characters Haven't Always Read the Script

A friend told me a story about a woman she knew, who'd sold up everything here and emigrated with her husband and family to the other side of the world.  On the plane over her husband slipped off his wedding ring and said the marriage was over.  He was following his mistress, who'd emigrated earlier too, and had decided he had to get over there too - but wanted to keep access to his children, so had persuaded everyone that the emigration was a good idea.  He was flabbergasted when his children refused to speak to him and they all promptly turned round and went back leaving him alone.  That wasn't in his script!

We all carry scripts in our heads.  I'll say this, then they'll say that, and then I'll say this and ha! that'll show them.  Trouble is, people have their own ideas and follow their own script.  They haven't read yours so do things you'd never do, say things you never thought they'd say.

When I'm teaching a class exercise, rather than putting up words or phrases that I've thought of, I ask for contributions and put them up on the board.  This isn't because I'm lazy (well, not only) but because I've learned that there will be a far greater range of ideas than I could have thought of, some going in directions that hadn't occurred to me before.  

Our characters have to follow their own scripts, rather than obediently going along with ours.  They have to speak with their own voice, not ours.  They have to do their own actions, not ours.  They need to have their own tastes, not ours.  When you've got a character who is following their own script, not yours, you're in that situation where the characters seem to write themselves.  

How to get there?  I think there are probably as many ways as there are writers.  I usually write my first draft not really knowing and during the writing I start to 'see' my characters.  Actors sometimes say if they get the shoes right, the rest of the character falls into place. I normally know what their hair is like before I know anything else - in the book I'm writing at the moment, I know my main character has black hair in a Louise Brooks type bob and is fond of black skirts with bright, bold applique.  Once visualised I understand their quirks a bit better, their tastes in food, music, cars etc.  Then I start hearing their voices more distinctly.  Gradually they become real people, just as tangible (to me) as my friends and family.  And like real people everywhere, they don't follow my script all the time.

Perverse, isn't it?  As a writer you control your characters, but the writing is best when they control the script. How do other writers get there?  


Diandra said...

As a writer, I do not really feel as if I was making up the stories... I merely sit down and write what happens inside my head. It can be pretty annoying, and I've spent hours crying over someone who died on paper (and I couldn't have avoided it), but it makes things far more lively and exciting.

(Guess I'm a story-teller, not really a writer. ^^)

Jim Murdoch said...

I think this is probably the one aspect of writing that non-writers struggle to come to terms with. How could we possibly not be in complete control over what is going on on the page? The fact is we are, just not consciously. I’ve never written a book that never needed to be written but I’ve also never written one I set out to write. My last book in particular refused point blank to conform to the idea I had in my head. What is interesting – a writer friend pointed this out to me – is that if there is one common thread that links all my protagonists it’s the fact that they’re not – or feel they’re not – in control of their own lives.

Sarah Duncan said...

Diandra, I rarely kill off my characters but I do cry with them. Their pain is my pain! I think it has to be for us to be writers. Or story-tellers - not sure why you think you're one and not the other.

Jim, I think it's scary what your subconscious writes for you. My workshopping group kindly pointed out what all my main characters have in common and it certainly made me think about what lurks beneath my consciousness...

Olivia Ryan said...

Blimey, that story at the beginning of your post ...!! It'd make a good plot for a novel!
I agree with everything you say here, Sarah. My characters definitely have their own agendas and I get quite annoyed when they don't want to do what I'd planned for them. It actually feels like magic sometimes the way they take over! And yes, it's hard to explain to people who don't write. They must think we're a bit crazy. But then, I suppose we are ...

Becky Black said...

I definitely think it's all about the subconscious. If I know a lot about a character, I can't hold all of that in my conscious mind right now when I'm writing this scene. But my unconscious mind knows everything about them, and knows how they'd react or what they'd do, which might not be exactly what I thought.

It's not only knowledge of the characters either, but just general knowledge that may have a bearing on the situation. My favourite example is one time I was writing a story where a group of characters were coming together to form a team. The last two showed up and one of the others immediately started getting all prickly with them, which I'd never planned, leaving me wondering what's his problem, why is he suddenly acting like this? The other two started reacting to him in the same kind of way, again, without my permission!

Then I realised he belonged to an ethnic group which historically didn't get along with the ethnic group the two other guys belonged to. I hadn't even thought of that when I was outlining, but clearly that knowledge was somewhere in my subconscious, and influenced the behaviour of the characters without me making that conscious choice.

I kept it in. It worked nicely to create a bit of conflict and tension within a group who had to work together and support each other.

Trust the unconscious, it knows everything! :D