Move Over and Let the Characters Drive

Dumbledore as portrayed by the late Richard Ha...

Dumbledore as portrayed by the late Richard Harris in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I love reading books that are so good that you just have to talk to someone else about them. My husband and I have read a few of those lately. After finishing the latest trilogy, Thomas Googled the author to see if there were any interviews about the series’ ending. Sure enough, he found one in which she talked about how her characters continually surprised her.

“It’s just like so many authors say,” he told me, looking somewhat bemused.

“It’s true,” I confirmed.

As crazy as it sounds, we authors don’t have the total control over our characters that we wished we did. Yet some authors insist on absolutely smothering the life out of their characters to make them bend to their wills. You’ll know these characters when you meet them because they’re inconsistent, like someone is forcing them to do things they weren’t meant to do.

Since I think it’s safe to talk about the Harry Potter books without fear of spoiling the ending (and if you haven’t read them, shame on you), I’d like to bring up something author J.K. Rowling said back in the days when all the fans were itching for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Book 7). Thomas and I checked her website on a daily basis, theorized with friends, skimmed the news for any possible updates, and any time J.K. Rowling came out with something – anything – new, we were beside ourselves with glee. And no, I am not exaggerating (although Thomas can suppress his glee a lot more than I can).

And one day, she said that she was having a particularly hard time with Dumbledore. Well, first of all, that made everyone scratch their heads because he died at the end of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Book 6) – or did he?

But more amusing to me, aside from this nugget, was the image of Jo Rowling fighting her characters to straighten up and fly right. Characters will be difficult, and although non-writers may think we authors crazy or schizophrenic or overly imaginative to say so, there is an element involved that defies explanation.

There are some people who feel compelled to write in order to create characters that fulfill unrequited wishes. These characters are forced into ill-fitting molds. The beautiful girl that said no to a date with the nerdy guy suddenly falls in love with him. The bully at school finally get his come-uppance. The evil boss sees the error of her ways and starts treating her employees like human beings. These characters feel flat. They don’t do much – except what the author designed them to do.

What is truly beautiful, however, is when these characters are allowed to take control of their existences, teaching the author a thing or two while living their stories. Harry was an absolute teenage brat in Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix. Sirius Black died laughing, in the thick of battle. Dumbledore gave his life, leaving a mess and a number of unanswered questions. Dobby – well, I don’t even want to mention him because I know it will start my mom crying. But the point is that J.K. Rowling could have made Harry a sweet fifteen-year-old, leaving everyone wondering if she remembered at all what teenagers are like. She could have let all of her characters live, eliminating the very important sacrifices that they made. Everyone would have hugged and been happy, and the story would have stalled and rung false. It would have cheapened their dear, fictional lives.

So next time you read a book and can’t believe that the author did something that you feel is the deepest betrayal, consider how you would feel if the author had taken the easy way out instead. I don’t know about you, but I don’t read in order to feel all warm and fuzzy inside. I read to suspend disbelief for a time, to form a relationship with characters, to have an absolutely amazing experience – that may hurt at times but will also deliver a great deal of truth in a fictional package. The stories that I love the most are the ones that leave me conflicted, that keep me up at night, that sometimes break my heart. Maybe things didn’t turn out the way they could have, but often, they turn out exactly as they should have.

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5 thoughts on “Move Over and Let the Characters Drive

  1. releaf1954 says:

    I agree that characters will do what they want, regardless of what you have planned for them. It’s one reason I tend to write by the seat of my pants instead of making careful plans. I want happy endings and I avoid books that anyone has used the word “harrowing” to describe. Beloved characters can be sacrified, but if anyone ever lets the dark win in the end, that will be the last book I ever read by that author. I read fantasy to be moved. In the end, I want to be uplifted. I’m still mad that I can never get back the hours I spent reading Pet Sematary.

  2. Jeyna Grace says:

    Its safe to say, characters are alive. As long as the author lives, that character breathes like another human being. You cannot change them.

  3. […] Last week I wrote about letting go and allowing your characters to take the wheel, and I’d like to expand on that this week. […]

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