Should You Control Your Characters Or Follow Their Lead?

You may have experienced the startling phenomenon of your characters taking over the story, and saying or doing things that you had not planned on. When characters show initiative like this, is it better to let them do as they like? Or will your book be stronger if you keep your characters in line and obedient to the story you originally planned?

Characters Are Folds Of Your Subconscious

When you write what you really think and feel, your characters become peels, or isolated fragments of your inner self. Sometimes characters are created from repressed aspects of your personality. They are often, in fact, parts of yourself that your conscious mind feels the need to explore.

I Don’t Know, Victor; I Really Just Make Up My Characters

Everyone says that. Pardon my cynicism. I shall now explain my attitude. I have a degree in acting. (Economically useless, I know, but I like to think of it as a degree in human communication and behavioral pattern recognition.) It might not look great on paper, but I have people skills.

Victor, That Is A Lie! You Admitted On Yesterday’s Blog Post That You Needed Better People Skills!

Well, I did say something like that. Originally in that post, I had a snide little paragraph that, on reflection, I decided was rude. So I replaced it with, “Maybe I need better people skills.” But let’s be real here, I have phenomenal people skills. Anyway, let’s get back to your characters, and whether stronger fiction will result from your following their lead or manhandling them like a disciplinarian with a sturdy whip.

Now, where were we? Oh, yes. Acting school. In some ways, my program sucked (because many of the professors were failures as professional actors), but in other ways it was an invaluable resource, because I could study what NOT to do, and I could watch dozens of actors progress with varying degrees of success through a wide variety of material over the course of several consecutive years. The methodology of my program was very sound, though its application was often remarkably lacking, and I had access to good material and venues.

Anyway, the point is that I studied people as they created characters (do you get a sense of where I’m going with this now?) for years and years. I created characters myself, and I eventually began to teach others how to create characters. I have been writing creatively (as many of us have) since I was a small child, and my work with writing ran along concurrently with my acting work. Many, if not all, of the performance and creation skills I was mining from theatre had immediate and practical application to creative writing.

All of the problems typically encountered by an actor in the field are almost identical to problems faced by any fiction writer who is working with character-formation, and unless you are writing an autobiographical memoir, you are working in character-formation. (And even then, but hey, let’s keep going forward.)

Okay, So You Think I’m An Actor. I’m Not. Now Tell Me About Following My Characters’ Lead Already

The characters you create are inevitably formed from parts of your own organic energy. Unless you are God or an elevated and fully-enlightened being, there are things about you that you do not know.

There Are Things I Don’t Know About Myself? Like What?

Every time one of your characters unexpectedly says or does something (or clearly wants to) in your writing, your inner self is being revealed. Whatever aspect of your personhood that is enveloped in that particular character is attempting to extricate itself from obscurity and become a conscious aspect of your true self.

That Sounds Kind Of Deep

Gee, thanks! I try to be deep. Ha! Anyway, let’s look at an example of what I mean. I’m going to take a soldier from a fantasy example I wrote some weeks ago, and continue his adventure. I will give you one excerpt where I exert control over his actions, and one where I allow him to lead me. You can judge for yourself which piece of writing is stronger (my mind is made up, and my bias, I presume, is fairly obvious).

Here Are The Examples

Bad Writing (Controlled Characters):

Hornby was torn between a desire to help his fellow soldiers, and a terror of the ball of evil-looking magic that the old wizard carried. It was not supposed to be like this, Hornby thought, and the “it” in question was his assignment. He had been ordered to guard the old wizard two days ago, and he had been ill-prepared for the brazen manner in which the old man, Moriven, flaunted his authority over the people of Balinor.

Stupid old cuss, Hornby thought, but he held his breath as Moriven raised the pulsating orb, and flung it with a cry at the mangling bodies below.

A shimmer, like the reflection of sunlight on the surface of the sea, buzzed over the cliff-face. Hornby saw, too late, that the pair of slave-women had covered their eyes with their thick purple sleeves. He raised his own arm, but the blistering light reached his face, and his eyes burned in their sockets.

Hornby fell to his knees; a crackle of iridescent fire passed over his face, and he felt a pair of claw-like hands grasping him on either side of his head.

“Let go of me!” Hornby bellowed, struggling. A pair of powerful knees pinned him down to the ground; magical restraints closed, snapping and dancing with forceful sparks, over his arms, and Hornby found himself clasped hard against the stony breast of the mountain.

Hornby’s breath left him in a harsh rattle; he drew in new air, and the sound of his inhale crossed sharply over the silence that now blanketed the area. They’re all dead, he realized, and a shaft of horror blasted through his heart.

“My brother Gimrol was down there!” Hornby screamed. A pulse of orange light filled up his mind; he knew no more.


“Hand me the red stuff,” Moriven’s voice said over him. Hornby only gradually became aware of his surroundings; it was night, and the soft glow of a fire danced over the face of the hideous old wizard.

“You killed Gimrol,” Hornby rasped, and he lifted his arms, meaning to grasp the old man around the throat. Moriven chuckled, and daubed cool mud over Hornby’s eyes. Horby gasped, and jolted his head away from the thick, crusted fingers. “Stop touching me,” Hornby said hoarsely.

“He can see again; it worked,” Moriven said in a business-like tone. Hornby blinked away the stars that flecked his vision, and shook his head hard.

“What filth is this?” he demanded, meaning to reach up with his hand to wipe away the wet muck.

“You are bound, for your own safety,” the old wizard said. Moriven stood, and gestured to someone that Hornby could not see. “Tend to him, and tell him what he wants to know,” Moriven said, sounding positively jovial, and the old wizard hobbled out of Hornby’s line of sight.

“Where are you going? Where is he going?” Hornby demanded of the purple-robed slave that came near to his side.

“You have been touched by the orb of instant death,” the woman told him in a soft and measured tone. “You are very lucky to be here at all.”

“Where is my brother? Did you save my brother as well?” Hornby demanded. The woman met his eyes for a moment, and then looked into the darkness, as if waiting for some answer or direction.

“They are all dead, who were below the cliff,” the lady said.

Hornby’s breath left him in a rush. He had known, on the cliff, that there was no hope, but somehow, still, he had dreamed of it all being an awful nightmare.

“He can’t kill our own,” Hornby said. He looked to the side, but Moriven was out of sight. I will kill him, when I can stand, Hornby thought. The woman seemed to read his thought, because she laughed.

“Many men, mightier than you, have sought to destroy the great wizard,” she said. Her eyes were dancing with a clear light.

“My brother is dead because of him,” Hornby spat.

“Show him,” Morivan called from the darkness. Hornby twisted his head, and glared through the night, but he could see nothing.

“Show me what? What does he mean?” Hornby demanded. The slave woman nodded into the darkness, and raised up her palms.

“Close your eyes, and I will help you to see,” the lady said. Hornby stared at the dimly-lit slave with deep dislike.

“I do not want you to touch me,” he replied slowly.

“Show him,” Moriven commanded, in a high, cold voice. Hornby hissed, and glared at the lady.

“Is it safe?” he asked. What he meant was, will I be able to see, after? She nodded, and Hornby, stuffing away a large measure of suspicion, closed his eyes.

Good Writing (Characters Lead the Action):

Hornby watched in horror as the old magician laboriously raised his hands, and threw the pulsating black ball down on the fighting forms below the cliff. For a moment, nothing happened, but then a muffled bang, and the splatter of several hundred bodies bursting open filled the clear evening air with a sickening pitter-patter of blood and internal organs hitting the rocks.

Hornby’s brother, Jash, who had been a sentry of the Balinor outpost, was among the first to fall. His bright blue eyes turned momentarily up to the top of the cliff, and as his blond hair and shapely form exploded, Hornby screamed out, and flung himself down from the cliff.

One of the slaves who had supported the old wizard darted at Hornby, and wrapped her arms around his torso. The woman was stronger than she appeared; Horby wrestled her violently, and the white-bearded wizard glanced at their struggling bodies, and uttered a sharp curse.

Streams of white and gold light flung themselves against Hornby’s body, and he fell headlong to the ground atop the cliff. His arms and legs were bound tightly against his body, and a smooth wrap of magic filled up his mouth. Hornby struggled and spat against the magic, but it yielded easily to his mouth without causing him pain. The magic was like smooth butter, or creamy cheese. He could not make a sound, but he could breathe easily.

Hornby glared furiously at the woman who stood over him, watching him dispassionately.

“He appears to be upset,” the slave informed her master, who snorted.

“Carry him with us, Isbel,” the wizard told the purple-robed slave, and she bent at her waist, and hoisted Hornby easily over her shoulder. He attempted to fight against her hold, but his muscles grew quickly numb, and he felt his mind drifting wearily away from the darkening cliff top. I was not tired; I am not sleepy, he told himself furiously, but the darkness clung persistently to his mind, and he felt his eyes rolling up, and his jaw slackening.


Hornby woke in the deepest night. His limbs buzzed with a disquieting ache, but he no longer felt the width of stifling magic between his lips.

“You hurt me,” he said. He could see no one.

“I saved your life, you foolish man,” Isbel, the female slave, said. Hornby turned his head, and saw her sitting on a fire-colored boulder. He blinked, and lifted one hand to rub his eyes. His arm came partway up, and then stopped. Isbel saw his movement, and he thought he saw her smile. “You are bound, man-slave,” she said in her quaint accent.

“I am no slave,” Hornby spat. Isbel laughed in a low, throaty voice, and Hornby felt an automatic quiver of attraction in his gut. He felt a simultaneous disgust and desire for the exotic slave, whose hair was tied up in loops of gold, and whose fine brows arched disdainfully over her very keen eyes.

“You are war-chattel of my master, the great wizard Moriven,” she replied. She stood up and passed out of his line of vision. To his surprise, the boulder upon which she had sat, which had burned with a strangely orange-and-red glow, flashed out at once, and became an ordinary lump of granite.

“I belong to no one, slave,” Hornby called after her. He heard no answer, and, after craning his neck to see what he could from his present position, he began to struggle to rise.

He found that he was bound with short tethers of magic to a length of the stone ground. From what he could see, he was no longer anywhere near the cliffs where the battle had occurred, and where his little brother—ye gods, what was he going to relay to mother? Sorry mother, Hornby imagined himself saying, but I was assigned to guard a warlock, and I watched while he did a spell that exploded Jash into pieces of blood and softened intestine. Hornby grimaced bitterly, and examined his tethers. He could only see part of the magic. Where the tethers sank into the stone, it burned with the same strange glow that had illuminated Isbel’s boulder.

Hornby rotated his body, and began to test the strength of the tethers.

“You will yank out your arms before you release yourself from my bonds,” Moriven said. Hornby glared up through the darkness, but he could not see the white-bearded wizard.

“You killed my little brother,” Hornby spat. He could not contain the venom in his voice.

“Yes, it is most regrettable,” Moriven agreed. “I myself have had relatives in such battles. It is unfortunate. I am guessing you did not expect me to kill everyone.”

“I didn’t think you’d do magic that killed our side, too,” Hornby said. He felt hatred seething in the skin of his face; he wanted to stride to the old man, and hit him.

“Well,” Moriven said, clapping his hands together sharply. “To business. I need an apprentice, and I think you will serve well enough.”

Hornby blinked, and shook his head.

“I won’t be your apprentice, old man,” he said, with what he hoped was withering scorn.

What we find when we follow the characters’ lead is that we naturally steer clear of artificial situations, and a remarkable freshness enters the dynamic of the scenes and dialogues. Our characters become independent and volitional. A happy side effect is that the act of writing becomes a movement of discovery.

But I Like Writing To An Outline, Victor. If I Follow The Characters, I’ll Lose My Structure

A surprising thing happens when you use both an outline and volitional characters; magic storytelling happens. You see, in order for you to force a volitional character towards a predetermined outline, you have to motivate the character. For example, in My Name Is Caleb; I Am Dead, Caleb is instructed to do something that he really, really doesn’t want to do. My outline showed that he would eventually do it. So my challenge, as a writer, was to create a scenario around and inside of Caleb that would bring him, emotionally, to the point where he would be both capable and willing of the action that ultimately occurred in the outline.

You’re Being Too Vague; This Is Not Helpful

You’ll just have to read the book. It’s a very good book. I’m not going to spoil it for you. Back to our point, when you follow the volitional urges of your characters, you are, in essence, externalizing and incorporating repressed aspects of yourself into your core personhood, which is good for your branding, good for your readers (because the characters are naturally fresh and dynamic in this methodology), and good for your daily writing experience. Embrace the unfolding of your hidden self, and reap the rewards of dynamic, moving fiction in the process.

You’ve been reading a blog about writing by Victor Poole. My books are here. Have a great afternoon.