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How Autonomous Are Your Fictional Characters?

In his book On Writing, Stephen King uses a unique illustration to describe the relationship of the author to her story. Novelists, suggests King, are less creators than they are discoverers. He writes,

“Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible. Sometimes the fossil you uncover is small; a seashell. Sometimes it’s enormous, a Tyrannosaurus Rex with all those gigantic ribs and grinning teeth. Either way, short story or thousand-page whopper of a novel, the techniques of excavation remain basically the same.” [pgs. 163-164]

Elsewhere (in Everything’s Eventual: 14 Dark Tales), King repeats the point.

“Stories are artifacts, not really made things which we create and can take credit for, but pre-existing objects which we dig up.”

It’s an interesting perspective and one which has important ramifications on how we view fictional characters and the stories they show up in. If stories are “pre-existing objects” then the writer’s duty is simply to expose them for what they are, not manipulate them for the author’s end. But complete autonomy for a fictional character is absurd.  Isn’t it? Surely J.K. Rowling had a choice in Harry Potter’s destiny. Or did she? Did Harry exist in some archetypal gloaming which Ms. Rowling was privileged to penetrate? Or is the boy wizard simply a figment of one woman’s imagination; is Harry’s journey, his emotions, his friendships, his adversaries, HIS story, simply a pawn for his creator’s whims?

Not long ago, one of my characters woke me up. I had been wrestling through a plot problem with my WIP and this character burst into my subconscious with a startling suggestion: Kill her. I immediately dismissed the thought, kicked the troublemaker out of my brain, and tucked the would-be victim back in bed. But over the next few days, the seed of that suggestion took root. Several days later, after considerable consternation, I pulled the trigger. Literally. But something else died in the process.

My desire for TOTAL CONTROL over my story.

The possibility that fictional characters should possess a degree of autonomy scares control freaks like me. It also scares those with strict conventions about what a story should contain. I mean, the author who believes that “magic is of the devil” would have a fit controlling Harry Potter. In that scenario, poor Harry would probably renounce witchcraft and become a sock puppet for the author’s magic-less universe. Of course, while stripping Harry of any autonomy may empower his creator, it doesn’t do justice to who he actually is. Or should be. And maybe that’s the real question: How much autonomy should we give our fictional characters? And what do we do if their choices go against ours?

As King answered in his memoir on writing,

“When I’m asked why I decided to write the sort of thing I do write, I always think the question is more revealing than any answer I could possibly give. Wrapped within it, like the chewy stuff in the center of a Tootsie Pop, is the assumption that the writer controls the material instead of the other way around.” [p. 159, bold mine]

So who “controls [your] material”? You or the story and its characters?

One of my beta readers expressed a little concern for the language in The Ghost Box. Mind you, there’s no F-bombs. Nevertheless, the story involves PIs, police, criminals, and other gruff, street smart characters. The reader suggested that the profanity does not make the story any better, to which I agreed. But while the profanity doesn’t make the story any better, it is true to character. And hopefully, by staying true to the characters, my story IS better off for it.

  • Are we demanding characters that fit into our worldview, or the worldview they actually inhabit?
  • Are we constructing characters who are truly autonomous, or just puppets for our own opinions and values?
  • Do we have the courage to let our characters speak their mind, without interjecting our own?

Or is all this talk about autonomous characters complete nonsense?

All I know is that when I excavated my protagonist, he cursed. I’m hoping he will eventually clean up his language. But I’m just the author. I can only make the suggestion. The decision is ultimately up to him.

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{ 14 comments… add one }
  • Kessie December 1, 2014, 10:06 AM

    Alas, I had the same problem with my most recent book. One of my heroes occasionally dropped a swear. He was just a brutally frank sort of person, and if a situation warranted a rough word, he used it. Granted, there’s no F-bombs, but there’s a few other choice terms scattered about.

    Ghost Box is high on my TBR list. 🙂

  • Davey December 1, 2014, 10:33 AM

    Ha. Well, I lean toward the “nonsense,” though I admit it would make a fascinating read were a book to be written about a fictional character coming to life to demand royalties from the author, or sue him for slander. But it’s a fun way to frame the process. And I’m glad you stuck to your swearing guns to preserve character integrity.

  • billgncs December 1, 2014, 11:05 AM

    That darn free-will. I suspect if even annoys people at the top, the very top!

  • Luke December 1, 2014, 11:15 AM

    No, Mike, I’m not going to start the whole discussion on profanity again, but look at the idea of autonomy in fiction from a different perspective. You have to consider the idea as coming from King and the like as a throwback to the classical idea of the Muses. From a Christian writer perspective, are we opening ourselves to some unknowable outside force or to the guidance of the Holy Spirit? I’m all for letting the story go where it wills, but I fear we like to use this as an excuse for writing things other view as controversial. While controversy is a necessary and probably beneficial aspect to our writing, using this explanation is in essence a way of saying of the “devil made me do it” as “my character made me do it.” We as writers make choices based on our beliefs. While my characters do not use profanity, they live in a fantastical world because that fits with my beliefs. My protag is never going to become an atheist or a Hindu, and I’d venture neither would Regan. Your choice to allow him to use profanity or encounter a magic is a personal one. This is not meant as a dig, but a reinterpretation of the Muse issue. If you were adamantly against profanity, it is unlikely you would “unearth” it in a character. A Sadducee wouldn’t write a paranormal character. A teetotaler wouldn’t unearth a successful lush. Regardless of the reasoning our writing is a window into our beliefs, our passions, and our very souls.

  • Johne Cook December 1, 2014, 2:03 PM

    I think it comes down to need and preference. For this year’s NaNo novel, I needed an inciting incident and decided to introduce a character to show my protag around. The only reason she existed was to serve as the emotional kickstart that would give my hero something to do for the rest of the novel. But after a chapter of getting to know her, I realized I liked her too much and she couldn’t die. Allowing her to be kidnapped set in motion a major element that changed everything about the work. (That one decision – kidnapping vs. murder – changed the story from a murder mystery to a different kind of story altogether.)

  • Jason Joyner December 1, 2014, 2:15 PM

    I had the same thing happen as Johne in my NaNo story. A gal that solely existed as someone who got in trouble for the hero to rescue became an integral part of the story. She wasn’t just a victim, she was an investigative blogger who now wanted to investigate the heroes, creating problems for them. That certainly wasn’t my idea ;).

    I also dealt with an issue when I did a character assessment for my suspense novel. The main character is an attractive med student who walked away from church at 13 or so. One of the questions asked if she had ever had any sexual partners. My background would say no. But that was very unrealistic for the situation. It didn’t make the story, but if it came up, then yes she’s had sex before.

    To sum up, I don’t think there’s an ether where Harry Potter or Regan Moon hang out and wait to be discovered, but I think the creative process does deal in some mystery in the inspiration and direction, and there is room to tap into it. With discernment.

  • Melanie Bernard December 1, 2014, 6:55 PM

    My first time commenting on your blog! Just wanted to say, first, that this is one of only a few blogs I read where I glean as much from the comments as I do the posts.
    Okay, my thoughts. I believe that the part of a story that is hidden and needs to be excavated is Truth, and we need to pull in the characters, situations, etc. to best reveal the Truth. Often, we miss the mark when we try to keep our characters safe and on the right side of every moral line, not realizing that it’s often in crossing the line and suffering the consequences that we finally realize and accept the truth for ourselves. We end up writing shallow.
    If you think about it, did anyone in the Bible (except for Jesus) ever do what they were supposed to do the first time?
    K.M. Weiland talked about Theme today on her blog and (I’m paraphrasing) she said in order to illustrate a theme effectively you have to be willing to play devil’s advocate in your writing. You have to argue for both sides before your reader will trust the message you ultimately put forth. The reader wants to know you’ve really thought this out and taken both sides seriously. Otherwise, it just comes across as preachy and you lose your opportunity to reach them altogether.
    This is why I think a lot of Christian fiction fails. No one wants to cross a line. It’s probably why I’ve never finished a novel past the first draft. If I write “clean” I get bored and quit. If I write “dirty” I think of my Christian acquaintances reading it and what they might think, and I quit. Sigh…

  • Anne Hamilton December 2, 2014, 1:32 AM

    Whether the character swears or not is, in my view, the author’s choice. Who the character is, well, that’s entirely another matter. I agree with Stephen King that stories are discovered rather than invented (just as I believe that mathematics is discovered, rather than invented – though there are many eminent mathematicians who would disagree).

    Ok, maybe not all stories. But great stories. What many Christians fail to grasp is the mythic quality of enduring stories. And that such stories are frequently about the meaning of the author’s name (which in Hebrew understanding is a summoning into both identity and destiny).

    Lewis is a name going back to Llew Llaw Gyffes, ‘the lion of the steady hand’ who was the Celtic god of light. CS Lewis’ choice about character: to follow the myth or redeem it.

    Tolkien is a name – in my view – that derives from Toki or Palantoki, and thus goes back to Orvandil/Earendil, self-admittedly Tolkien’s inspiration. Tolkien’s choice about the character of Earendil: to follow the myth or redeem it.

    I could go on to cite nearly 300 other examples I’ve collected like this. Yes, the author does have a choice. To redeem or not. What redemption looks like is not a thirty-second prayer either. It’s a call into the heart of love, mercy, justice and sacrifice. Swearing is optional along the way and really a trivial (but effective) distraction from the deeper darkness.

  • Kat Heckenbach December 2, 2014, 7:11 AM

    I find it interesting that in the comments here, and even more so in the comments in the thread on Facebook where you posted about this blog post, that the discussion has turned so heavily toward cussing. To be honest, that’s not something that would have even come to my mind based on the question posed in your post title. For me, what comes to mind is the moment you’re in the middle of writing a scene and a character you hadn’t planned on including just walks into the room. Or words flow from a character’s mouth that you never had in mind before. And suddenly the plot takes a turn you’d never anticipated. Letting the characters lead the story, letting things play out based on what *they* would *do*–not just will you let them cuss on-screen.

    For example, I once wrote a short story that is nothing but dialog. Two old men arguing in a graveyard over a mangy dog while they care for the landscaping. It all started with the men’s voices in my head coming from out of nowhere. For days, they just would not shut up, so I sat down and started writing. I didn’t force anything, just wrote what popped into my head. Yes, of course, I edited afterward, but these were not carefully planned out characters–they came to me fully-formed in an instant, and the story followed based on them and their reactions to the dog and each other. (And btw, yes, they both cuss. A lot :P.)

  • RJB December 2, 2014, 10:13 AM

    Great post Mike.

    I would like to see Mr. King (or any of you) prove that you subscribes 100% to this “story is a relic” belief by writing a story about a homophobic racist environmentalist who saves the planet by drilling for more oil and then celebrates by eating a blind child.

    You may write such a story but we would never see it because of what is missing from this discussion – authors want to get published. It’s a business and there are certain do’s and don’ts to every genre. Eric Carl would not write a story about a fouled mouth sailor any more than King would write one about a hero pedophile.

    I work in software sales and there are things about the business of selling software that drive me crazy but if I want to be successful (let alone stay employed) I have to follow the rules. If you are writing for your own pleasure, write whatever you want. If you are writing for publication, obey the rules.

    Serious question, why do authors (really all artists) think that they are above the rules of their chosen profession?

  • Heather Titus December 2, 2014, 12:20 PM

    I’ve had quite a number of people ask me, “how do you come up with your stories?” My answer had always been, “I don’t know…these people show up in my head, start talking, grab my hand, and say ‘Come see what I’ve done!'”
    Sometimes that answer gets me a concerned look that clearly says “shouldn’t you be in a padded room somewhere?” 😉
    This article reminded me of something I was thinking of the other day–I wonder if part of the controversy in certain circles goes along with the fact that non-writers see characters as an extension of their author, not as something autonomous. For example, a Christian who doesn’t like swearing reads a swear in a book by a Christian author and gets upset because they see it as the author swearing, not the character. I think sometimes that people have difficulty separating the author of a book and his characters.
    Hopefully that makes sense.
    PS–I borrowed The Ghost Box for kindle last night. Already on chapter 12, and the paperback version is going on my Christmas wish list. Really enjoying it so far!

  • Lauren December 4, 2014, 12:33 PM

    I’ve had characters do and say things I’d never expect or what them to do. Once I was typing the dialogue for a young women on the phone with her sister. The young women had just received word that her boyfriend had been killed . . . I had fought the notion of that happening in the first place ( I hate killing characters!) but then she up and tells her sister she’s pregnant!

    I literally stopped typing. I had never seen that in my planned story arc!

  • Mark Carver December 5, 2014, 11:11 PM

    When I write my characters, I simply ask myself, “What would I do if I was them?” A dangerous question, because sometimes the answer is lie, cheat, steal, fornicate, murder, etc. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I’m discovering my characters as much as I am surprising myself with what I can conceive of possible doing. Perhaps I’m discovering aspects of myself that I will never allow to exist other than on the page.

  • Patrick Todoroff December 6, 2014, 8:00 AM

    In line with Mark’s comment, much of the battle is giving myself permission to let the characters act and speak accordingly.
    My characters are autonomous in the sense that once I generate them, the plot, the setting, they must be internally consistent. If I don’t like the direction they take, as the “creator”, I can step in and change elements. But then I ask myself If I am being true to the story, to the craft.
    Which of course leads to the deeper question: am I exclusively responsible for the creative process?

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