Where I’m Going Is Shaped By Where I’ve Been

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Today we welcome our special guest Kalayna Price!   Kalayna is the author of Grave Witch, first in the exciting Alex Craft urban fantasy series from Roc, and the Novels of Haven from Bell Bridge Books. She draws her ideas from the world around her, her studies into ancient mythologies, and her obsession with classic folklore. Her stories contain not only the mystical elements of fantasy, but also a dash of romance, a bit of gritty horror, some humor, and a large serving of mystery. She is a member of SFWA and RWA, and an avid hula-hoop dancer who has been known light her hoop on fire. To find out more, please visit her at www.kalayna.com.  Welcome, Kalayna!

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If you hang out with enough writers, or are one yourself, you’ve probably heard someone say “well, this was supposed to happen, but my character refused to do it.” When writers talk about characters like they have independent thought, our non-writer friends tend to look at us like we’re completely mad. And yet, most writers will tell you that characters occasionally refuse to follow the plot. If manhandled into a situation, the character will either fall flat on the page or the resulting scene will be painful to write and uninteresting to read. This leads me to believe that either writers really are a bunch of schizophrenic loons, or our inner storytellers have an intrinsic understanding of character motivations. Personally, I’m hoping for the latter, but what does it mean to have an understanding of character motivation.

Motivation is usually addressed in relationship to the main plot. It is what drives your character through the plot and pushes him to pick himself and keep going despite all the challenges in the story. To use the very classic example of the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy journeys to see the wizard because she desperately needs to get home because she thinks her Aunty Em is sick. Her Aunt being sick and Dorothy’s need to get back to her propels Dorothy through the story, it directs all her major decisions, and yet it is not the only motivation or measure for Dorothy’s actions and interactions with other characters. If main motivation were the only deciding factor in how a story progressed, a hundred people could be given the same one line goal/motivation/conflict prompt and they would all come out with the same story. Thankfully, that just isn’t the case.

A character is more than their current set of circumstances. A character is the product of what has happened to them in the past. They have backstory, most of which will never be explicit on the page, but which the writer knows. That backstory helps shape the way a character thinks and creates a precedent for their actions (which doesn’t mean the character won’t change over the course of the story—in fact, a good well rounded character should be forced to change by the events of the story). When a character absolutely refuses to do what the writer thinks should happen, it is typically because that action wouldn’t resonate with the character, many times because something in the character’s history is ‘off’ with the current situation.

So, if your character isn’t cooperating, or if he is falling flat on the page, go back and study his history. Do you know his backstory? Is there something there that doesn’t jive with the actions in the scene? Or maybe there is something there that can help them in his current situation? Is he acting ‘in character’?

Of course, there is that other possibility to. It’s possible the characters really are talking to us . . . and the men in white coats are our friends.

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10 comments to Where I’m Going Is Shaped By Where I’ve Been

  • Hi Kalayna,
    great to see you here! Also, great point. I think that some beginning fantasy writers invest so much in world building and magic systems that they forget that for most readers of any genre, character is still king, and that means that personality trumps plot. If, as you say, the character wants to go one way but you as the author insist on taking her somewhere else, the result is going to strain credibility.

  • I was chatting once with Algis Budrys and Norm Spinrad about how characters go off in directions not anticipated by the author, and Norm said that never happened to him. Algis challenged him, saying, “Are you telling me that your characters never surprise you, they always do what you expect?”

    “Why not?” Norm replied. “It’s my subconscious–I bought and paid for it.”

  • Welcome Kalayna! Great to have you with us. My characters used to be quiet about the choices I made until I wrote the scene. Then they’d say, “Um…sorry, no.” But that was back in my pantser days. Now that I plan things out before I write, they have many more opportunities to tell me who they really are versus who I wanted them to be. Regardless, though, of when they speak up, it’s so important to listen. Thanks for speaking out for characters who lack a voice of their own!

  • Hi Kalayna! I’m going with the schizophrenic loony theory. My characters talk to me all the time, tell me what they want, suprise me frequently. I’m cool with that. It’s their story, after all!

    And those guys in the white coats? If you’re nice to them, they give you an extra helping of jell-o….

  • Hi Kalayna! I’m struggling this right now with the revisions on my WIP. There was a scene that TOTALLY fell flat. I ignored my character. Now I’m having to go back and ask him to pretty please tell me what he wants to do. He’s being stubborn though. I think he’s mad at me…

    I like the green jello.

  • Lance Barron

    They are constantly surprising me. And they really like to talk. I think I’m definitely in the schizo-loon camp — er, bin. I apparently have a problem getting enough backstory onto the page to make the character clear. My first reader generally tells me once or twice on her first read, “He wouldn’t do that!”
    Thanks for your great post.

  • Razziecat

    Ha, been dealing with this forever. I even have one character who lies to me. It took me months to figure out WHY he had committed the act that set the whole story up. Funny thing is, another character sees him much more clearly than I do. And I’m writing both of them! The mind is a strange place.

  • Nice post. There’s been a big discussion on characters over at the OWW email list. I might just have to link to this site again. Thanks,

    NewGuyDave

  • Thanks everyone one! Sorry, I’m late to the party here.

    Hi back at you, AJ. Yes, that is something that should be remembered–the character is who the reader will relate to, so “character is king” is a good way to phrase it!

    LOL, great story, Wolf!

    Stuart, I’ve always been a plotter, so I’ve never really considered that a pantser wouldn’t run into a stubborn character until after the scene was written. I guess if you don’t have a plan, logic says the characters can’t refuse your plan. ^_^

    Lyn and Megan, Mmmm jello!

    Hi Lance! Well, the good news is that if your first reader is saying your character wouldn’t do something, she is definitely getting a feel for the character, unfortunately just not the one you intend. Finding the balance of enough backstory without tipping over into info dumping is hard. Good luck!

  • I agree, Razziecat–the mind is definitely a strange place. A character who lies to you? Ouch! That has to be very interesting!

    Thanks NewGuyDave!