Discovering your creations
NOTE: This was originally published here.
Fantasy can take you to imaginary worlds, dystopian futures and pasts, pseudo-Earths, parallel universes and other planes of existence. Characters can be humanoid or monster (or both), ethereal or flesh, and these individuals populate worlds crafted by gods, demons, time or the clouds of mystery.
But it’s not just the epic battle scenes, the flamboyant shows of magic, the ancient ruins full of death traps, the dark and forbidding forests and caves, or the long-winded elvish names that keep readers hooked to the fantasy genre. It’s the characters and how they shape their futures.
My novel Equilibrium is a fantasy epic in six parts set in a world wracked with conflict. For centuries, two empires have tussled for territory and dominance. Each time one empire gains ground, the other empire pushes them back. In this world, it is nigh impossible for a character to remain noble and ethical, no matter how hard I tried.
To me, there are two different types of stories. First, where the plot shapes around the characters and forces them into action. The characters feel like they’re grasping the reins of a runaway horse; they cannot control where the beast is going and they are too afraid or unable to jump from the saddle. The second type of story is where the characters are making all the decisions, in complete control, and are the driving forces that shape the plot.
But what happens when a character decides to leap off that horse and take control of his life, or stops dead along the track and refuses to make another decision?
You might sometimes hear an author referring to characters rebelling against the plot or simply not doing what they’re told. When I started out, I scoffed at this idea, thinking, “But they’re my characters! I made them, I know them best. If I write a scene in which one of them kills someone else, then that’s exactly what they’re going to do!” How naive I was…!
Several times in Equilibrium, I found my characters stalling or squirming in discomfort as I wrote down their actions and words. One instance, in particular, the plot needed one character to kill another. However, when he was standing over his victim, his knife in his hand, a little voice said, “No.” I ignored it. I wrote the scene, the victim was killed, my murderer got away and the plot continued, but the character had become a contradiction. Everything he had claimed to be suddenly felt like a lie. Those had not been his actions. I had been the puppet master and he had been watching from behind his own eyes, screaming.
So I rewrote the scene. I cut the strings, sat back and watched as my character did the unexpected. I was truly surprised and I realised that I had not known him quite as well as I had thought. It’s a fascinating and strangely liberating feeling being a writer and not being in control of your creations.
This character was only the beginning. One by one, my characters spread their wings and I had to let them fly, because for most of Equilibrium, they were in control of their own fate.
The hallmark of a well crafted and fully fleshed-out character is the ability for that character to begin to write itself. In fact, sometimes, all we writers need to do is set the scene and open a door, and the characters will do the rest! In my experience, allowing a character to choose their own fate does wonders for the storyline. I’d highly recommend letting your own characters off the lead from time to time! See what they do. You could learn something.