Dispatches from the Desk: A life of their own: characters (antagonists) with depth

You’ve heard writers say their characters take on a life of their own. You’ve probably heard writers grumble about how their darn people took over the story and changed what they intended to happen. You’ve probably also heard other writers saying that that’s nonsense, the writer is in charge, etc. Maybe it comes down to a difference in plotting techniques. If you’re an evolutionary writer rather than an outliner, it’s far more likely your characters are going to evolve as you write and end up driving parts of the story in directions you didn’t expect because, remember, you were just trying to get to that distant height of land that is where your story ends, and the road between you and that went wandering into the dark forest. You didn’t know what was going to happen there anyway. Someone working from an outline is more likely to have fleshed out the characters in greater detail before they began, and to have less room for them to deviate from that, because, in the complex interlocking pick-up-sticks of a plot, changing one thing can change everything else.

I’ve been dealing with this with one of my characters lately. He was turning out to be a great drag on the forward momentum of the plot. He was psychologically interesting. He was historically plausible. I’m not writing an historical fiction. What I mean is, he was the sort of person who, realistically, would create the sort of situations I needed him to create, and who would, in real life, do the sorts of things he was going to do, to make him an enemy of the heroes. Or the antagonist, you if want to be more lit about it.

He was also boring me. It’s hard to sympathise with the self-righteous, and weirdly, I found it hard to think of him as the hero within his own head, although a pious, self-righteous man is likely, even more than the rest of us, to know he’s doing the right things for the right and necessary reasons. He needed more dash, more . . . I realized, complexity and mystery, because all that self-assurance didn’t seem to be leaving anything to discover. I took the Spouse and the dog out for a late-night walk in the graveyard and held forth, thinking aloud. (The Spouse suggested that I could maybe just get a small stuffed toy to think at, since I wasn’t actually looking for input.) Usually I do my thinking aloud, as it were, while writing, but in this case I needed that babble and waving of hands. It worked, and I talked myself into a realization of what I needed for this antagonist’s role in the story. I needed to change this and this about him . . .

The moment I sat down to write again, I couldn’t see him, the guy I was writing about, having that different cast of mind. I should have been able to take what I had, call him B1, and recast his thoughts and actions to make him into B2, while leaving him standing where he was. It didn’t work. The moment he was B2, he couldn’t even stay in the same place. He couldn’t be the same child in the family. (He’s a middle-aged man by this point, but still . . .) He had to be the younger brother, not the twin. He had to have done one thing very differently as a boy, to be where I needed him to be now, in his head. And that put him a few hundred miles away now, and changed all sorts of other things, which is making the whole story more interesting and creating problems, of the healthy, challenging sort that keeps things interesting and alive, for a completely different part of the story that was slowing down a bit.

Taking on a life of his own? That’s a metaphor. That’s the thing some people miss when they say, nonsense, you’re the author, you’re in charge. Of course you are. A character taking on a life of their own is that subconscious problem-solving human brain at work, fizzing away, analysing what’s probable, what’s consistent with human headology (love that word, Mistress Weatherwax), what’s consistent with the established reality of this world, what works with what needs to have happened by the end, and, vitally, what’s interesting and exciting to the one who’s got to write those 130,000+ words that are going to make it all happen. That creative cellar full of all the oddments and shadows is making connections, leaping from rock to rock to cross the stream without stopping to consciously think, that one or that one. So sometimes you do end up leaping and realizing you’ve hit a dead end, flailing your arms wildly to spin off the force of your leap as you pose precariously on one foot realizing you have nowhere to go and need to retreat a stepping stone or two — but you’re still much further along, committed to the crossing, and you just need to backtrack a little, not all the way to bank behind. That “life of his or her own thing” is us saying, I didn’t think of that before I began, but once I started writing out of the depths where the poetry and the magic happen, that was what worked. B2 couldn’t be where I had put B1, because for him to have those different aspects of his personality that the story needs, he can’t have done the things B1 had done that put B1 where I had him. It wasn’t psychologically plausible. He had to have made different choices long before. That looks like having a life of his own; it’s really the rapid-spinning mind saying, these connections don’t work: if-then if-then if-then and then he must be here, now. And you the writer say, ah, yes, that’s obvious, without even noticing, usually, what’s going on down in the cellar to lead you to that conclusion.

This isn’t how one of the bad guys from Blackdog ended up being quite heroic in The Leopard and The Lady — that was always her trajectory and the roots of it are there in Blackdog if you look — but it is how a pair of secondary characters ended up taking over my imagination and turning out to be some of the most interesting — and occasionally difficult — protagonists I’ve ever tried to write.

B2, meanwhile, having killed his older brother/self off by his existence, must be very far away from where B1 was last seen standing and brooding. He’s definitely going to start causing very different problems for said unexpected heroes far earlier than I thought he could, when I was at the plodding and consciously plotting stage.

I think I should re-read one of my biographies of Cromwell and see what that does for him, down in the murky depths of the cellar.

About K.V. Johansen

The author of Blackdog, The Leopard, The Lady, Gods of Nabban, and The Last Road epic fantasies from Pyr, I also write for teens and children, including the "Torrie", "Warlocks of Talverdin", and "Cassandra Virus" series, and the "Pippin and Mabel" picture books, as well as a couple of short story collections and two works of adult literary criticism on the history of children's fantasy literature. I have a Master's degree in Mediaeval Studies, and read a lot of fantasy, science fiction, and history. Blog at thewildforest.wordpress.com
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2 Responses to Dispatches from the Desk: A life of their own: characters (antagonists) with depth

  1. I think I should re-read one of my biographies of Cromwell and see what that does for him, down in the murky depths of the cellar.

    I have always found interesting and complicated historical figures and events as excellent fuel for trying to create multisided characters–or wishing for them in fiction that I read.

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