Quick! Stop that Runaway Character!



by Lev Raphael


I’ve been doing readings from my fiction since the early 90s and one of the common questions I get afterwards is “Do your characters ever tell you what to do?” or “Do your characters ever get away from you?”

That question is a fascinating doorway into how people tend to perceive authors and the writing process–and how they want to.

My answer is plain: Never.  And here’s what I mean.  Everything that appears in my books, every aspect of plot, setting, dialogue, characterization, action is mine.  Hell, the punctuation is mine, or as much mine as anything can be in this life of transience.  I created it all, and even if I got advice from an editor or was inspired by other writers, the final form is mine.  The words are mine,  the rhythms are mine.  It’s all shaped by me as a writer, as an artist, consciously and unconsciously.

My characters are not independent of who I am.  They don’t speak to me: I speak through them.

Saying a character surprised me is dramatic, but it’s not accurate.  I surprised myself. Something was churning away inside, some unexpected connection got made that changed what I was working on.  This happens constantly when we write: a mix of editing and revision and creation at the sentence level and the chapter level.

But many writers love to grin and say, “Yes” in answer to the question above, and then they tell dramatic stories that make audiences smile and even laugh.  It seems to confirm something to non-writers about what it’s like to write; it makes the whole experience more romantic and glamorous than it actually is.  And it casts authors as at least mildly eccentric.

Once I was nearing the end of a book and realized I had the wrong person committing murder.  It wasn’t the murderer speaking to me, or the victim piping up, or even the gun giving advice. It was the mind of a writer spinning straw into gold. And after a long and fruitful career, I’m glad those moments keep coming.




Guest post contributed by Lev Raphael. Lev is the author of Writer’sBlock is Bunk and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery which you can find at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Check out more of Lev’s work on his blog, Writing Across Genres.

17 thoughts on “Quick! Stop that Runaway Character!

  1. I understand what you mean that the entire creation is the writer. When I’ve created a character that I know as well as myself, then I instinctively know what that character would think and do in any given circumstance. Many authors prefer to tell readers that the character told them how to write the story.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Love this. When you’ve developed a world fully and the people who occupy it are fully formed, it can feel as though they are acting according to their own whims. But you’re right: writers are more than conduits — we are creators. If it feels like a character is directing their own course, it just means you’ve done your job well.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I love this line – I surprised myself! I definitely had that happen this November with my book. I thought I knew where the story was going, but it wound up being about something else entirely. What I came up with was so much better. I love it when I’m writing and I can just turn off that inner critic and let myself get carried away.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. While I agree that the story is ‘mine’ I find it’s better to let the characters do what they ‘want’ to. Holding too tightly onto the idea that they’re ‘mine’ means I’ll start to impose my own moral code on them, and that means my whole story will be people’d with a bunch of me’s – and I can’t think of anything more dire, to be honest…

    Liked by 3 people

  5. I enjoy reading your posts. I am presently trying to move from 100-200 words stories into 700-800+… a chance at a different market? I don’t really think of it as a market… I just don’t feel I am ready to craft the ‘novels’ that are in my heart. I don’t persevere that long. Ant suggestions? Your thoughts are often right on target for me. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Of course you are 100% right, I agree with every word…..
    ….. However, in the little febrile world which is my writing place, ‘things’ are different; which probably explains a great deal about my lack of success….Oh well.
    All the best to yourself for 2017

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I must agree with you, Lev. I recently shelved a story because I felt the main setting and the daily life of the main character was completely wrong. I had tried to work with what I had so far for a number of months, making myself tired and totally frustrated by the whole thing. It would have been great to say it was the character’s fault but I knew better.

    Reading here how you got three-fourths done with your WiP before realizing what you felt you must do to salvage your story has given me hope for the one I’ve shelved.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. While I see your point about writers being ‘creators’ of their stories, leaving myself open to what a character ‘wants’ has helped me build a deeper story. For example, one character I included in my current novel as a ‘utility’ fit a larger role that I needed to fill, and then became someone much more deeply entwined with the overall plot. Obviously, these were my choices as a writer, but allowing myself to be open to the potential of this utility character led to a completely unintended arc that I think strengthened the larger narrative. In this way, the character drove the plot, rather than the other way around.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Oh gosh, thank you for this! It’s so creepy when people talk about characters like they’re separate people. Maybe other writers think it’s cute, but it’s really just weird. Yes, we should flesh the characters out and know their personalities and backstories, we should let these personalities guide the story to some extent, but we’re ultimately in control of these imaginary people.


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