author control, character change, creating a world, fiction, good characters, The Girl on the Mountain, Writing

The Novelist as Control Freak

It’s been noted before that one of the pleasures of writing fiction is to create and populate a world. How God-like! But novelists get to go farther than God, because they’re engaged in the business of fiction. Without someone manipulating every word and deed, fiction has no life. Writers have control, baby.

So writers get to project events as they’d like them to happen, or as they fear events could happen. As they make characters lovable or despicable, reward and punish them, writers show what they value, whether love, physical attractiveness, superhuman skills, or everyday hard work.

Near the end of The Girl on the Mountain, one of my minor characters tells the main character he’s writing a book similar to Dracula, a novel read by several others in the story and popular in the real world of 1899. She asks why he’s making a story about a monster when there’s so much evil in ordinary people. He says the more grotesque and evil the character, the more the ending will satisfy.

Like my heroine, I think there’s abundant evil in ordinary people. Rather than concocting monsters, I’d much rather explore what is true. But the writer-character (the teacher, Mr. Cooper) makes a valid point. An audience is relieved, after experiencing fictional dread and fear, when a situation ends and resolves in a satisfying way. You know the feeling when your emotions have been stretched, then brought to rest on a good ending. Whew!  It worked out! What a ride!

Here’s a secret: a story doesn’t always work out like the control freak intended. Like real life, fictional events and characters can get out of hand. Writers frequently talk about characters taking on a life of their own, doing things the author didn’t plan. I think this happens when our characters are so well-fleshed-out that what they do and what happens to them becomes inevitable. I wouldn’t have chosen to put my innocent young heroine through so much trouble, but that’s what happened, because of the people I put around her. I found a couple of scenes emotionally difficult to write. If you’ve read the story, you may guess which ones.

So back to the beginning. Writers of fiction may be control freaks, but we’re never totally in control. First we must wrestle with the inevitable. THEN we release the story to readers. Once that happens, readers take over and experience it through the lenses of their own sensibilities. I think that’s a good thing.

14 thoughts on “The Novelist as Control Freak”

  1. Great post. You’re right of course; writers can never maintain a grip on their characters no matter how hard they try. And when they do try, you can sense that something unnatural is going on.
    In my current WIP, I got stuck because some characters refused to cooperate. No matter what I wrote, you could tell the characters were resisting getting bent to my will. Much like pesky kids, they are!

  2. This is true for me. My characters are always doing things I didn’t expect. Even when I know how the scene needs to go, they often run away with it, which is fine with me because they usually do something great and add new elements I didn’t expect.

  3. I can only agree with you, Carol, from experience! Sometimes a scene takes a direction of its own because of a chemistry going on between interacting characters. And good point, too, about the emotional difficulties experienced when confronted with a certain scenario or issue. I think that’s where the so-called ‘writer’s block’ comes into play with writers retreating into the frozen wastes of non-confrontation. Anyway, a thought-provoking read. Thanks for sharing. 😉

    1. Eamon said:

      And good point, too, about the emotional difficulties experienced when confronted with a certain scenario or issue. I think that’s where the so-called ‘writer’s block’ comes into play with writers retreating into the frozen wastes of non-confrontation.

      For me, being blocked is more about not knowing the story very well!

  4. Good comment, Carol…I’m more a reader than writer and hope you’re working on your next book! I loved this one.

  5. Very true. I used to roll my eyes at writers talking about their characters as if they were real people–until I became a writer. Our characters a simulacrum, people as real inside our heads as anyone else, because we simulate them in order to understand them–like anyone else. When we push them out of character, it causes consternation–like anyone else.

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