Many writers have talked about their characters ‘rebelling’, ‘acting of their own accord’, ‘talking back’, and ‘doing their own thing’. It’s something that doesn’t seem to be tied to any particular genre or period, and it’s been reported in many different contexts. However, determining what writers actually mean when they talk about characters in this way can be rather tricky, especially since they’re not all necessarily talking about the same thing. 

Most of the writers we surveyed (just under two thirds) said that their characters did act of their own accord, and what they described tended to fall into a few different groups (although bear in mind that these aren’t hard and fast categories, but rather broad areas with fuzzy boundaries).

First off, there were a few writers who seemed to be talking about characters that could be so wilful and autonomous that they almost seemed to have an independent existence.

‘They do their own thing! I am often astonished by what takes place and it can often be as if I am watching scenes take place and hear their speech despite the fact I am creating it.’

These writers also sometimes described characters could have arguments with them, even to the point of expressly demanding larger roles in the story. Of course, such characters weren’t at all intrusive, and usually there was a sense that the writer was calling them up or getting into the right frame of mind to talk to them. In any case, what makes this group pretty distinct from all the others is that for these writers at least some of their characters could have full conversations with them, even about things in the real world.

Then you’ve got what was probably the largest group, which included those writers who didn’t experience their characters as fully-fledged entities, but who were still aware of their characters ‘doing their own thing’. The writers within this group usually described one (or more) of the following:

  • Characters which felt independent but confined to their own world, as if the writer were watching them on a film screen. Often in these cases the writer could drop the character in a situation, then watch to see how the character responded.
  • Characters which the writer usually felt as if they were controlling, but which occasionally did or said something that was surprising and felt completely uncontrolled by the writer. Often this was most noticeable as snatches of dialogue, but sometimes it was a scene or action or set-piece.
  • Characters which weren’t necessarily doing anything, but which apparently ‘resisted’ being forced into dialogue or actions that didn’t seem to fit.
  • Characters which occasionally ‘went off script’ or which seemed to be taking the story in a different direction (i.e. the writer had a plot set out, but when they got to a certain point something else had emerged because of the way the characters had developed during the writing process).

Some of this might sound familiar to you, and some of it might sound completely alien – it was an aspect of the experience on which writers differed significantly. It’s also worth pointing out that although most of our writers said that when their characters acted of their own accord this always felt like the ‘right’ thing for the character to do, a few writers said that they still chose whether or not they followed this character-produced alternative:

‘My characters can often swing the story in an unpredictable direction. Depending on the story, I can either reign them in or let them run with it.’

Even amongst those writers who said that their characters didn’t do their own thing, there was some variation. While a few suggested that they were in complete control of everything, the majority of these writers said that they were aware of ‘something’ happening, but they didn’t think it was so much a case of the characters having minds of their own. Instead, they tried to explain what was going on in a different way – saying, for instance, that it was actually the story which had a mind of its own, or their own subconscious (which is a bit like saying ‘my mind has a mind of its own’).

‘On the very rare occasions where a character has led the story in a different direction than I thought it was heading, I think it’s the story making that change, not the character.’

Funnily enough, there were a few writers at both ends of the scale who said that they wished that they were at the other end – writers who wished they did have at least some control over their characters, and writers who wished that they weren’t in complete control (usually because to them that looked like less effort). Furthermore, several writers pointed out that what really mattered about their characters becoming independent was that, for them, it made the writing more enjoyable because it became unpredictable.

EXERCISE 5: A roll of the dice

Using a numbered list for each task, write down:

a. Six positive character traits (e.g. generous, confident, honest, etc.)

b. Six negative character traits (e.g. manipulative, inconsiderate, violent). If possible, try to avoid using the direct opposites of the positive character traits you’ve already listed.

c. Six places (e.g. a park, a sewer system, a bar, your home, Brazil, etc.)

d. Six objects that can be held in the hand (e.g. a pair of scissors, a flower bulb, a wishbone, etc.)

e. Six emotional states (e.g. terrified, ecstatic, bored, etc.)

Now using a dice or random number generator, randomly select one item from each list. The five items you have selected now apply to a single character [not the same character from Exercise 3]. Write the scene.

A significant number of the writers who said that their characters acted of their own accord (whether this meant the characters were completely independent or just produced occasional moments of resistance) also talked about having to be at a certain point in the story before this started to happen. A few were even fairly specific about when this would usually occur, saying, for example, that it would happen half-way through the book or after a certain number of words.

‘I nowadays just plan my books halfway as I know that in the middle of the writing process the characters will take over the story so my planning will become useless anyway.’

Why does this happen?

This gradual emergence of characters’ independence could potentially be accounted for in terms of how we deal with people (what it actually means to know someone), and in terms of how we invent/create things – because of course, characters are both.

On the one hand, we’re always trying to predict how other people will react to what we do and what we say, even if we’re not always aware of thinking this kind of prediction through logically. It’s a sort of instinctive ‘knowing’ which we use all the time in our day-to-day interactions with other people. With people we know well, we often think we have a sense of ‘the kind of thing so-and-so would say’ or do – it’s a part of what makes them who they are to us.

With fictional characters, it’s likely that the same sort of processes are at work, at least once you ‘get to know them’ – and quite a few of the writers we surveyed explicitly compared their relationships with their characters’ voices to this kind of learning (and it can be just as true for readers as it is for writers, by the way). The sense of the character ‘responding’ or ‘doing their own thing’, would, in this sense, come about from being aware of the contrast between having to actively decide how they behave (which is how it starts off) and then starting to know how they behave without having to think it through. Obviously, with real people, there’s not usually this sense of starting out by choosing their behaviour when you first get to know them, so the contrast isn’t noticeable in the same way. In a sense, the feeling of characters ‘doing their own thing’ happens because of some thing you’ve lost, rather than something they’ve gained.

On the other hand, we need to take into account what happens whenever we make something – whether that be a pot, a sandwich, an argument, or a story. Some philosophical and psychological research suggests that although we often reflectively think we have been in control the entire time, this isn’t entirely the case. As we make something we are constantly making changes to how we go about it, and we can’t always be consciously aware of making every single change (some changes, for example, are just too small or quick for that). Of course, since we were the only person involved, it makes sense to say that we were responsible when we think about who ‘did’ the making. With characters, though, we’ve got ‘made things’ that are also person-like – and as a result, they are also good candidates for some of that agency.

To put it bluntly, we’re not as much in control as we think we are – and because of what characters are, as people and as made things, they just happen to make this a bit more noticeable.

Of course, having characters who do or don’t seem to be independent doesn’t necessarily make for ‘good’ writing, or ‘bad’ writing (whatever they might be) – and there was no part of the experience that was the same for all of the writers we surveyed. Instead, the feeling of characters (or the story, or the ‘subconscious’) acting of their own accord is perhaps better thought of as a motivating force, because it can make writing to feel like creating and discovering at the same time.

EXERCISE 6: Putting it all together

Take the first character you created in Exercise 3 (the postcard exercise) and the character you created in Exercise 5 (the dice exercise), and the place setting, which you explored with your characters’ senses in Exercise 4. Combine these elements to create a new scene and write what happens.

If you’re working with a partner or creative writing group, pass the place setting from Exercise 4 to your partner or neighbour so that you have a new place setting for your scene. Write what happens.