If you’ve been visiting this space on a regular basis for any length of time, it’ll come as no surprise to you that I play around with creative writing because I’ve inflicted bits of it on you from time to time. What I do is a lot like an artist doing sketches. Just here lately, I created a couple of characters, put them in a situation, and aimed it in a particular direction, just to see where it would go from there.
But here’s the thing. These two characters have to have names — so I have to work out what their names are. They have to have physical attributes, as you do, so I have to figure out what they look like, because their physical appearance has some bearing on what’s going on between them. They have to have context — so I have to figure out the situation they’re in. But then, they had to get into this situation some how, so I have to figure that out, which means they have to have back stories. (I’ve noticed that this is typically the point where personalities begin to coalesce around these little character-seeds.)
So then, I have to work out what happens to them during the story, which is when I realized there had to be a doctor, so I had to invent him out of whole cloth, and then, in order to get from point A to point B so the next bit of the story can happen, there had to be this guy who got his foot shot off, and the next thing I know, he ups and decides that he’s way more important to the plot than I had planned for him to be and starts telling me that he wouldn’t have done this one thing he’s supposed to do in the way I was trying to get him to do it, he would have done it this other way, and he wouldn’t have done this other thing I wanted him to do at all, so forget that. I already knew one of the main character’s parents were going to be important to the plot and that they had to have certain personality types in order for other parts of the plot to work right and I knew that character had two older brothers and a sister because back story, but they weren’t going to figure much in the story. Then the sister decided she wanted a much bigger role than I had given her and that she was going to fall in love with the guy whose foot got shot off . . . . And here all this time I thought I was the one telling the story . . .
I’ve heard multiple writers speak about how characters seem to develop a mind of their own, and I’ve had it happen to me time and time again. It’s fascinating. It’s also a little weird. Robert E. Howard related that it always seemed to him that one of his most famous characters, Conan the Barbarian, would read over his shoulder as he typed out a Conan story, and correct him when he got it wrong. This might strike the person on the street as kinda strange that a made up character would be bossing its creator around, and might provoke a look askance, but a writer would nod their head in understanding and go, “Yep. Been there.”
The thing is, I think readers can spot those characters that seem to develop a mind of their own. They have a three-dimensionality that lifts them off the page. They “ring true.” The great writers are the ones who can create characters like that, and then step back and let them tell their own stories. Once you get to that point, it’s just a matter of reportage.