The Willful Character And The Act of Writing


I read comments by writers all the time saying their characters take over and start driving the plot of the story. With my current work in progress, I’ve become quite the plotter, making detailed outlines for each section of the work before I start writing. So imagine my surprise when the pen in my hand started writing a scene that was definitely not in the outline! What’s more, it was an unplanned sex scene.

Once it was written, I had to admit that scene actually worked, but the whole thing got me thinking about the willful character. Maybe it’s a form of “automatic writing,” not in the supernatural sense, but the result of tapping into subconscious impulses while in a state of receptiveness induced by the act of writing. (Hey, that’s not bad, considering I made it up on the spot).

The best fictional characters are like real people, complete with flaws, quirks and contradictory impulses. Some writers develop their characters before they actually start writing the novel. Physical features, musical and food preferences, hobbies, education — a complete curriculum vitae. I’m not that kind of writer. I have a hazy vision of my primary characters, that becomes clearer as I write. There seems to be a department in my brain called Character Development, that trots out details about each major character when needed. Sometimes it throws me a surprise.

One of the best parts of the writing process is when this automatic thing kicks in and the words pour out effortlessly. Sometimes it feels as though I’m just copying stuff dictated to me by a disembodied brain. It’s probably my brain. Or some kind of collective unconscious, a well of ideas available to all who yield themselves to the writing urge. That’s where our characters come from, finding their way in response to tentative images in our writing brains.

Characters manifest their characteristics, prompting a kind of negotiation with the author. “Okay, that’s fine — you can do this, but not that. And definitely not the other thing.” But cut them some slack. Willful characters aren’t a problem, but a sign that the writer’s imagination is engaged beyond the scope of the outline, tapping into a realm of mystery. And that’s good.

Sitting down to write, giving yourself up to whatever you are creating, is like going down an unexplored trail. You just don’t know what you might meet around the corner, even if you have a map. Whether you outline your plot in detail before you start, or write by the seat of your pants, you must be prepared for the unexpected.

SWCF manuscript and notesThe first stage of creating a work of fiction — the first draft — isn’t the place to worry about rules, or getting every detail right. At this stage, the writer’s imagination needs to be cranking out stuff, producing raw material to be refined later. That’s why I still write my first drafts — or maybe they’re better called “proto-drafts” — in longhand. Actually, “longhand” seems too fancy a term for my cursive scribble on the borderline of legibility.

The thing is, at this stage you don’t want to read over what you’ve written and polish it. You want to forge ahead, beating out the rough shape of your story, bumps, holes and all. Don’t look back! For me, stark black words on the bright white screen are just too intimidating. I really doubt I would have written that sudden sex scene if I’d been using my laptop. But I scribbled it down, and when I typed it up a few days later, the critical, analytical part of my brain said, “Well, okaaay, I guess it works.”

As for my work in progress — the first draft is almost done! Another 5,000 words or so, and I can write Finis.

And then, of course, I go back to the beginning. The crazy, creative part of my brain will take a back seat, and the critical, analytical part will get to to do its thing.

Featured image courtesy of Pixabay.



  1. Interesting Audrey. I always thought authors had everything more or less planned out in detail; I didn’t realize that the unexpected should actually be encouraged. What if that messes up the plot though? Or takes you away from your detailed plot?
    P.S. I hope you enjoyed your unplanned sex. I mean, writing about it!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Sometimes the unexpected development does make it necessary to rewrite earlier sections. The unplanned sex is a case in point; I’ll have to make some changes to make it plausible to the reader. It’s all part of the joy of writing!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. In my current WIP I’m trying very hard to fully conceptualize my characters before I start writing … but damn is it hard. I have a feeling that no matter how much material and backstory I come up with for them, they’re still going to surprise me as soon as the actual writing starts. I really like your strategy of writing and not looking back — it’s something I really struggle with, because I tend to read back over the previous day’s work to get in the right mindset for writing, but then I start to change things, and suddenly two hours have flown by and I haven’t written anything new.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Exactly! Now that I’m on section number 15, I realize I’ve forgotten a lot of stuff from the early parts. When I go back to start working on it, I expect some surprises, of the “Who wrote this stuff?” type.


  3. It is remarkable how the brain takes over the writing task and decides the direction then plot should really go! I have had that happen as well, and it always amazes me.

    When I studied Shona Art, stone sculpture from the Shona Tribe in Zimbabwe, the artists often described how the “spirit of the stone” changed what they had originally planned to carve. So interesting!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for explaining the detail just what is going on during a writing process Audrey because this was the experience I had writing my novel, even down to the sex scene (In that case I was sure the characters said to me. ‘What are you surprised about? Haven’t you read the narrative?).
    Sometimes the words just have to flow out and then later on everything can be untangled for consistency and tweaking the character development.
    Reblogged this as wise advice.
    Best wishes

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Ever had trouble trying to keep them on track with your plot? Mine keep on finding facets I personally wasn’t intending to bother with, and won’t leave them alone.

        Liked by 1 person

          1. Of late, I’ve found that’s where the fun really begins (With characters leaning over my shoulder and whispering…’See. Told you,’

            Liked by 1 person

  5. I like it when characters take over, it becomes effortless, leaving them o decide on their dialogue and what they’ll do next. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that your best characters are the ones you enjoy writing about. (I gave one character her own two book series.)

    The idea that the story is in there waiting to be found by the author is something I’ve thought a lot about. I plot the stories, but not the series and I’m confident it’ll resolve itself in the end. Maybe the subconscious mind is capable of creating an entire story before the conscious mind becomes aware of it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think that’s it; I spend a lot of time (months!) thinking about the plot and characters before I start writing. Even when it isn’t conscious thinking, I suspect something is working away in the back of my mind. When I finally start writing, that stuff comes up (our out), and that’s what’s really happening when we say our characters hijack the plot. That’s another reason I’m not a big fan of plotting out every detail in advance, although I do make rough outlines and checklists before starting on each section.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Stumbled across your blog through Kevin Brennan’s blog, and i’m glad I did, nice website! Rogue characters drive me nuts in my current WIP. I could have sworn I had everything plotted out, and I look up from the screen to realize the last 1000 words weren’t in the plot at all. I’m a novice to this whole writing thing, so I find it a bit disconcerting when the characters have THAT much say in the plot!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, but that means you’re hitting the Intangible Zone. Just write it all out, and when you’re done, go back with the editing scalpel and whip it into shape. For me, anyway, fresh writing and editing are two separate operations. Thanks for visiting and commenting!


  7. I think everyone is different in how they write, and probably do everything else. When I start, I have some scenes worked out through the book, so I know where it is supposed to be going, then I start, but usually I have several starts before I am happy, and here I try to make sure the characters are right for what they have to do later. So, by and large, they don’t surprise me, but sometimes I put in things towards the end that will surprise them.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. What I absorb from essay is how a willful character may have a mind of its own and takes over our direction and even our own thinking as a novel evolves like something beyond or outside ourselves. I experience this in my cartoon efforts. It is rare that I sit down to give myself a topic or subject to create something. It just happens. Sometimes in setting myself to thought . Most times just appearing in my mind out of nowhere. Sometimes I think of a sketch and must design a joke to fit it. Other times a joke comes to mind and I must create a sketch to fit it. But I think I relate to the willful character is that I often feel something or some force is feeding me ideas since they are not originating from my own active thinking. Followers of my blog often ask “How do you come up with this stuff ?” and I honestly have no answer. Some willful character seems to be operating through me and I am merely a vessel.

    Liked by 1 person

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