Archive for organic story-telling

Those darn characters…

Posted in General Musings, Writing and words with tags , , , , , on January 2, 2011 by simonmarshalljones

So, there you are carefully and thoroughly plotting your literary masterpiece, including outlining all the main characters and their attributes, what they look like, their motivations, likes and dislikes, temperaments and dispositions, etc, etc. You also go about sketching some of the secondary characters as well, but in nowehere near as much detail. The incidental and supporting cast? You can just wing that one, inventing bystanders and their reactions to your minutely-planned scenarios on the fly.

After all that preparation work, you get down to do some actual writing. You get some way through it, feeling pleased with the way it’s all turning out when, quite unexpectedly, one of those secondary characters, or even an  ‘incidental and supporting cast member’, starts to take on more of a life than you’d anticipated. What was just a literary device to help move the action along has slowly insinuated him/herself into the main narrative and become practically central to the whole plot.

It’s an awkward dilemma at that point. Do you scrap weeks or months, pehaps, of hard work, and start the whole thing over again, this time being determined to stick closely to the plan and watching out for those pesky fictional story-wreckers? Or do you simply let the character run on, risking him/her taking the narrative in a completely unexpected direction? In other words, are you the kind of writer who sticks rigidly to a meticulously pre-planned vision, or are you the kind that likes to let the people and events in the story surprise you and take the story where it will? Do you like your narratives and characters to grow organically, letting things happen as they would in real-life, where small incidents can lead to major and unexpected turns of events? Conversely, do you find that kind of method too risky, fearing perhaps that by letting things take their own course it’ll mean that the point you were trying to make will be missed entirely?

It depends, of course, on your own outlook. In my case for example, my life has never been one of certainty and security until fairly recently, and generally-speaking life happened to me rather than the other way around. This is reflected in the way I write – I only ever have the vaguest of ideas of what any particular story is going to be about, and I just start writing. While keeping the basic plot ideas in my head, I just let the story write itself. One has to have a certain amount of confidence, I think, to use this method – confidence in being able to tell the story without going off on a tangent or six, or meandering so much you actually do lose the plot in a literal sense. Personally, and contradictorily, I don’t have that much faith in my writing abilities just yet (which is probably another reason why I set up Spectral Press, bizarrely), but it’s something which I am going to be working on in 2011. It’s also just the way I have always written, ever since I was a child.

I did try using the other ‘planning-everything-in-minute-detail’ method once and it just didn’t work for me. It restricted the characters’ development I felt, or if something interesting occurred to me during the writing process I had to think very carefully about whether I could afford to include it, whether it would be a mere distraction or whether it would add anything to the narrative, or whether there was any point to it at all. I can understand doing it this way if I had been commissioned to write a novelisation of some film or franchise, but for my own creative endeavours the method is anathema to my way of thinking.

In this life, people tell their own stories, and very rarely, if at all, is anyone’s life planned to any degree by outside forces. My own feeling is that a story’s characters should be allowed that same freedom; the freedom for events and situations to unfold naturally, and that the characters the events and situations are happening to should react in a wholly realistic way. To my way of thinking, stories written in this way appear less contrived and more in line with how life works (even in a genre offering). Of course, this is just a simple matter of perception; neither am I saying that planning everything minutely beforehand is wrong. It’s just methodological preference.

So, are you a character/event-driven writer or a plan-driven one?