When Characters Attack!

When Characters Attack!

I wrote this up for the recent blog tour for my books, but I figured I’d share it here as well.  What happens when characters take on a life – and minds – of their own?

I’ve been asked, just like pretty much every other writer, do my characters ever “take over” and do things I don’t expect?  I can’t speak for anyone else, but my answer is: absolutely, yes they do.

There’ve been countless times in the five (so far) books that my characters have gone off in directions that I didn’t plan; and also several occasions where characters simply demanded more “screen time” and importance than I’d planned to give them.

One of them is Sara’s mother-in-law, Helen Alderson.  She’s got only one scene in “Dream Student,” and she’s mainly there to provide a small roadblock in Sara’s otherwise easy romance with Brian.  She doesn’t appear at all in the second book, except for a couple of mentions in passing.  But she’s got a big role in the third book, “Dream Child” – and it wasn’t really meant to be so big, but she kept pushing.  It wasn’t until I’d finished the book that I realized I was unconsciously modeling her character on Emily Gilmore from “Gilmore Girls” – and then her pushiness made perfect sense!

The entire fourth book was the result of Sara reacting in a way I didn’t really expect.  The original plot for the book was that Sara would meet a rival; someone else who shared her talent for stepping into other people’s dreams, but who used her talent for selfish, evil purposes.  I planned that somewhere in the second half of the book, as a minor obstacle to dealing with her nemesis, Sara would find herself spending a night in jail.  I thought it would be more of a distraction for her, and in the end something she could laugh off, but once I started thinking about it, Sara rebelled, and the scene became much longer, and much darker.  And Sara went right off the deep end.

I realized the scene had to come at the beginning of the book, and that the story of the book would be what was done to Sara in that one night, and how (or even if) she could recover from it.  In the course of her attempts to recover, I actually overruled Sara on one thing.  One of the signs that she was still not coping with what she’d been through was her inability to put her wedding ring back on (after she’d been forced to remove it in jail).  At one point, Sara was going to break her own ring finger to give herself an excuse to keep it off, but I just couldn’t bring myself to go that far.  I’m still not sure what I think about that decision; the story was dark enough already that it didn’t need to go any further, but at the same time, it’s what the character “wanted” to do and maybe I should have let her.

Before I started writing the first book, I never took it seriously when writers said that their characters took on a life of their own.  But Sara and Brian and their friends have taught me better…

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