Character Mutiny

Have you ever sat down to write something, having plotted the whole scene out in your head (action, dialogue, descriptions, the works) only to have one or more of your characters basically mount a mutiny against you?

It’s happened to me on more than one occasion.

Usually, my characters engage in literary subterfuge only when I drag my internal editor (sometimes kicking and screaming) into the “back room” and lock the door.  That sounds a little crazy, but you know what I mean.  My internal editor is surprisingly strong-willed and tends to nag, and frankly, if I don’t lock him (or her, I guess I’ve never thought about what gender my internal editor is) away from time to time, I’d never get anything written for constantly going back and fixing what I’d done the previous day – or week, or year….

I think my characters bide their time, waiting patiently while my internal editor and I plod through a diligently thought-out scene after scene, knowing all the while that, at some point, the editor will insist I go back and revisit previous work.  Sometimes I’ll go along with the editor because, let’s face it, sometimes you have to go back and cross reference your own narrative.

But the characters know… Eventually, the editor will nag once too often about that descriptive passage that’s too beautiful to hack to pieces just now, or insist on a complete re-read of all 41 chapters written to date when the self-imposed deadline is looming just weeks away, and then I’ll be force to knock that poor editor into the closet and prop a chair under the doorknob for his (and my) own good.

Sometimes, when this happens, the characters play it cool.  They realize that we need to work together.  But every so often, they insert their own agendas.  And suddenly, an hour and a scene later, I realize that what I’ve just written is nothing like what I’d imagined.

I’ve actually said, out loud to my computer screen, “How did that happen?  I didn’t want him to do that!”

Sometimes the characters just don’t do what you want.  Sometimes they’re very stubborn and uncooperative.  And sometimes, they take the ship by force.

Granted, when this mutiny occurs, I generally have the wherewithal to step back from the computer, close the writing program, and take a day to let things stew.  Often when I go back the next day and reread what I wrote when the characters took the ship, it’s really not half bad.  In fact, it’s often rather good.  It’s like the characters just knew what I really wanted to happen in that scene.  There are times when it just doesn’t work with what’s been written previously, but most often I can let the editor out of the box for an hour or so and we can work through the passages in question, making them work with the story that’s already been told.

More challenging are the times when the character mutiny is so good and so seamlessly tied to the previous chapters, I have no choice but to accept the changes and developments therein.  I have to then make some serious adjustments to what I’d intended to happen next (and later, and last).  There have been definite struggles in the past make mutinous passages jive with the outline of the subsequent chapters, or vice versa, so the story wraps up the way it should (the way I planned it).

I recently avoided a mutiny from one character in my novel only to allow a different character to subvert her intended role.  I have to say, she’s better off for it – her previous characterization and ultimate development never sat well with me.

For now we’ll roll with it.  Eventually I’ll have to let the internal editor have his way with the manuscript.  But as it stands, I’m curious to see how things will play out.

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