Friday, February 17, 2012

When Characters Come Alive

People often ask me if I write an outline before I write a book-length manuscript. Here is what I tell them: For non-fiction always. For fiction, no. Many fiction writers do write and follow an outline, but a minority find that doesn't work and I am one of those. I tend to be, rather, very character-driven. I have to form a character in my head first. By the time I start writing I know this character's background, personality, preferences, fears, joys. The stronger and deeper the character is the better I write. I find that a strong character tells the story to me and I write it down.

One interesting aspect of working in this fashion is that sometimes characters do things I don't want them to. Those who have read Gentlemen's Game will be interested to know that I had no idea what was going to happen in Chapter 14 until about Chapter 7. I woke up one morning and knew what would happen, and wrote 14. This is one of the few times I wrote out of chronological order. I also did not know what would happen in Chapter 21 - the last chapter of the book. I was in the middle of it when The Scene started (those familiar with the book know what scene I mean!) - I thought "Greyson what are you doing?" I was horrified.

But this is the thing: if I try to force my characters into an action or direction that they don't want to go naturally, my writing stinks. I have to give them a long leash and stay out of their way. A few different famous writers have discussed this phenomenon - that of the character taking over. Most memorably Stephen King wrote a short story about a character coming after the author with a vengeance - Johnny Depp starred in the film.

Has anyone written a strong character that then wanted to tell a story? I would love to hear about your experience!


  1. Great advice here Lichen. I need to take the time to read all through your blog.

  2. Thank you so much, Steve. It's especially meaningful when other writers I admire find something useful in the blog! Cheers!


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