What are Paper People? Not someone who works at a newspaper. Paper People are the men, women, and children we meet between the pages of a book. In other words, characters. Writers always struggle with their characters. If there is one thing I hear most, it is “my characters won’t do what I say!”
Well, folks, that’s because characters are people, as real as we are. They aren’t cardboard cutouts we push around or direct like a play. Just because we plotted the novel a certain way, doesn’t mean they are going to follow our directions. You know what I’m saying here.
Characters are funny. When a writer gives them life, they become living, breathing entities, as real as you and I. (If they don’t, you better start again). We might think they have straight yellow hair and blue eyes, but suddenly they have wavy brown hair and gray eyes. Not only that, but they don’t like the name they were given and want a new one. (Ha! Some of you just laughed. It has happened to you, too). Like children, they often want to go their own way. If we try to pull them back (the plot says go through the woods, not the village, and I don’t care if you like the red-head in the shop), they will often just stop and the story stops with them.
“What is wrong with my character?” is another cry I hear. My answer: Stop and ask them and then really listen. They will tell you where you went wrong. They really do need to go to the village and see the red head in the shop. She sent your hero a note about his long-lost sister you didn’t know he had. He’s been searching for her ever since they were children and their parents split up, taking one each. The red head was his sister’s best friend before he was taken away and she’s grown into a stunning woman who takes his breath away. So, see? He does need to go to the village and you’d be wise to let him. Yes, this will mess up the whole plot but that’s okay. You now know what is wrong with your character. Nothing. It was what was a problem with the plot.
“But I liked my plot,” you wail. It probably was a very good plot — until you put your people into it. Then everything changed. Well, some bits stayed, but the rest changed. Don’t panic, this is a good thing. You need three things to make a great story: People (characters), a path for their journey (plot) and the scenery (setting). Remember that paths often take many twists and turns, and has forks or detours for the adventurous. Of course, there are pitfalls and snares, too. A plot is often a dangerous thing for our characters to tread, no matter how pretty the setting.
I have learned to leave my plotting fairly loose because I know, absolutely without a doubt, my people will change things. They will discover in the course of a search that Aunt Maud had stored rare golden doubloons in her closet safe (they didn’t know she had a closet safe, let alone a doubloon in it). Where did she get them and now who inherits them? I would plot the search but not who was where or what they found. If I had, I would have missed the doubloons entirely, and they could very well be the reason Aunt Maud was poisoned in the first place. It is because my people are dynamic, living breathing human beings that I discovered this new piece of the plot.
If you really run into a problem with a character, do an interview with her. Find out what she wants most in her life (not I want this, please let me have it, but if I can’t have this one thing, I shall surely die), what scares her to death, what she loves above all else, and what she hates with a passion. What are her hopes and dreams for the future? What breaks her heart and brings her (and you) to tears? All you have to do is listen and then record what she says. Keep talking until you have all the answers you need. You can then write the scene as it should be done (and all your characters will say “Amen!”)
Please leave me a comment and let me know your thoughts. How do you work with your characters? Do they obey your commands or often go their own ways?