14 November 2012

"this means war": handling character rebellions (and revolutions) during nanowrimo

My children are brats.

Those who know me well know that I’m not talking about actual children; I haven’t been blessed with any of those little cherubs yet. I’m talking about my fictional babies: the characters I create to propel and occupy the plots of the novels and stories I occasionally write. The word “occupy” is strangely symbolic here. Of course, my characters do occupy the worlds into which I write them. But usually, they also take up an almost “Occupy” (a la Wall Street) stance when it comes to what I want to do.

During NaNoWriMo, my main characters seldom behave themselves. They fall in love when they’re supposed to kill each other. They die when they were meant to live. They say things they were never told to say. They rebel when they should obey. Sometimes, it’s a straight-up revolution.

"This Means War": Handing Character Rebellions
(and Revolutions) During NaNoWriMo
This is sometimes hard to explain to folks who aren’t working on a novel … It’s sometimes hard to explain to folks who are. When I talk about getting into my characters’ head-space, though, I really mean it. They aren’t just figures on the page … for me, they often feel like real, breathing people. That can be great, when it comes to making them realistic. It can also be a pain, when the reality behind them in my head allows them to take off and do their own things.

Let’s face it: Character rebellions (or revolts) are frustrating. When you’ve taken the time to plot out what you want to happen by the end of your novel, it’s frustrating (sometimes downright infuriating) when characters don’t play along with your plans. But … it also kind of comes with the territory. And I cannot help but think that sometimes it’s a great thing. I like to imagine it happens more often than we think. Whether I’m right on that count or not, the fact remains that it does happen, and when it does it’s left to us as writers to deal with it. How?

Let’s look at this as an actual rebellion on the part of your characters. There are a few ways you can deal with it. You can quash it: stomp it out right then and there, and refuse to let your characters get away with such nonsense. You can negotiate by working around these rebellions. Make them dream sequences. Make them wild fantasies. Make them false memories. Figure out a way to let the character do what he or she wants to do in the moment and get back to what you want later. If an unexpected fling emerges, make it a temporary one. If an unplanned death occurs, renegotiate the events after it happens to let your characters deal with it … and so forth.

Or (and I know, it sounds absurd) … you could just deal with it. Let what happens happen.
 I know, that’s easier said than done. A few years ago I had two characters fall in love where I had been fully intending that the female lead would let this guy die (and his death was going to be epic, and kind of hilarious). But by letting them fall in love (“letting” them … as if I had a choice), the plot took a whole new set of twists and turns, and wound up going in a fun new direction. Last year, a character made a decision in the last few pages that had epic implications, and I never saw it coming: but, boy, did it make for an exciting finish. Just the other day, while working on “Vereor Nusquam,” one of my characters shared a secret I didn’t know he had, and it changed absolutely everything. But you know what? It didn’t end the world (well … not yet), and it didn’t destroy my progress.

In fact, sometimes character rebellions can be fantastic, especially during NaNoWriMo! Think about it: you’re plugging away at 1,667 words a day, and suddenly a character does something unexpected. How can you compensate for his rebellion, for her lack of control? You have to write your way through it … which means you’re adding words you didn’t even know were there! It’s a gift, character rebellion! It’s a semi-peaceful revolution! It’s your chance to get down and dirty with your plot and make it work for you instead of against you. 

Writing is war. And despite the fact that our characters are our children, they are the warriors, and they are not always fighting on our side. We can fight back (one of the rules of NaNoWriMo is: if your characters aren’t working anymore, you can always kill ‘em) … or we can wave the white flag. Remember, this is just a work in progress: anything can happen. Let it. See where it goes. Ride the wave of this war … it can still lead you to victory in the end!

How do you deal with your rebellious characters? What do you do when your character wants to do, or say, or be something you never intended them to do, or say, or be? Share your tips, tricks, and war stories in the comments below!


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  1. I'm not doing NaNo this year, as I am editing two novels I'm determined to push out the door.

    I have had {pauses to knock wood } only minor rebellion on the parts of my characters. I'm not much of a plotter - I go in knowing the beginning, the ending, and the high points of the plot. What do I do?

    Keep writing. Go with the flow. Sigh and add another couple of weeks to my editing time.

    1. Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Margaret. I love the semi-go-with-the-flow approach you've taken; I agree that it's good (or wise, or what have you!) to know at least some of the major starting and stopping points of a plot ... what happens in between can come naturally/organically.


Thank you so much for your comments! Please feel free to share your thoughts here; I look forward to engaging in conversation with you!

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