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ColoradoGuy
02-15-2007, 07:06 PM
One occasionally hears writers say something like, "My characters took over my story." The implication is that the author, at least on a conscious level, is not always in charge of what is going on. Is this just a coy conceit, or does it actually happen? If it does, I assume it means some stories come from a subliminal place in the author's mind where they have been just lurking, waiting to come out.

"Automatic writing" was all the rage many years ago, in which an author sat and quickly scribbled what popped into his or her head, even if it was gibberish, which I expect it often was. The idea was to bypass the conscious mind.

eldragon
02-15-2007, 07:31 PM
If it does, I assume it means some stories come from a subliminal place in the author's mind where they have been just lurking, waiting to come out.

In my case, yes, that is what happens.

I have to mentally dig to remember these insignificant little things that are hidden in the creases of my brain. That probably explains why I am so tired when I am writing.


But there have been books written or said to be written by entities passed over - like "Messages from Michael," I think it was.

That's an old, but interesting book about a woman who channeled a spirit through her Ouji Board. She wrote about 3 books from his messages. Very interesting indeed.

Not something traditional Christians would appreciate, I don't think. For one thing, he said the whole Jesus thing never happened. Or at least not the way it is described in the Bible.

robeiae
02-15-2007, 07:32 PM
I wish my character could take over my story. I'm stuck.

But to your point, I think it just means that an author allowed the process of characterization to distract him/her from the development of the story. I would guess it happens all the time and is one of the reasons why writers (and editors) delete chunks of text. I don't think there's anything "subliminal" about it at all.

Higgins
02-15-2007, 07:32 PM
One occasionally hears writers say something like, "My characters took over my story." The implication is that the author, at least on a conscious level, is not always in charge of what is going on. Is this just a coy conceit, or does it actually happen? If it does, I assume it means some stories come from a subliminal place in the author's mind where they have been just lurking, waiting to come out.


Even in the case where a story's structure shifts as the composer gets into it, I don't think there is any reason to always suspect some direct, classic intervention of the unconscious. Lots of things can change as a work progresses and from the composer's point of view the sum of many small changes is indeterminant, especially if they are writing fast and well. After all, a lot of elements of composition are given by the genre and so on so a good composer is well aware of how to find structural solutions to plot problems and so on. So a lot of the subliminal stuff may be truly subliminal in the sense that it is more or less environmental and the composer is just doing their job by letting it flow into the story.

On the other hand, when a story suddenly doesn't flow, when some sense of unease comes to the composer, then there is reason to suspect the intervention of the unconscious and often only a series of small confrontations and revisions can allow the composer to get around the problematic stuff that might be lurking. Of course, if you're fairly experienced then you don't even quite register these little struggles and then you are surprised at the final result where you say (as I often do):
"Hey, I just Oedipalized the conflict and now Character X is a lot like somebody's mother." Sure enough. There may indeed be an unconscious after all. Maybe like this:

http://www.cla.purdue.edu/english/theory/psychoanalysis/freud3.html

eldragon
02-15-2007, 07:35 PM
I was thinking about "Seth Speaks," not Messages from Micheal, which is a series of books channeled by thousands of old souls that collectively call themselves "Michael."

ColoradoGuy
02-15-2007, 08:00 PM
But to your point, I think it just means that an author allowed the process of characterization to distract him/her from the development of the story. I would guess it happens all the time and is one of the reasons why writers (and editors) delete chunks of text. I don't think there's anything "subliminal" about it at all.
Yeah, but I've heard authors claim that the characters actually took over the plot, driving it a way the author claims not to have seen coming. What I'm trying to do here is separate what is essentially a figure of speech, standard author-speak metaphor-trope, from an actual, real process.

ColoradoGuy
02-15-2007, 08:03 PM
Here's a link to automatic writing. (http://skepdic.com/autowrite.html)

Higgins
02-15-2007, 08:13 PM
Yeah, but I've heard authors claim that the characters actually took over the plot, driving it a way the author claims not to have seen coming. What I'm trying to do here is separate what is essentially a figure of speech, standard author-speak metaphor-trope, from an actual, real process.


I think it's just a rhetorical ploy (the old "so lifelike" slightly transposed). Obviously characters don't in any sense take over. In the most extreme case some character may enable a composer to get into some otherwise repressed material, which, so to speak, would seem to "write itself" even though the writing would of course not literally be done by any one but the now-slightly-less-repressed composer of the tale.

Medievalist
02-15-2007, 08:36 PM
I've heard large numbers of published fiction writers -- yeah, people you'd know, talk about character's "taking over" and "listening to the voices" in their heads.

It's not true, by any means, of all writers.

What's meant by listening to the voices is that for many writers they do actually "hear" in their mind/imagination their characters telling them stories; they reshape and reorganize and revise as they write.

In terms of a character "taking over a story," what's meant is that the writer has a certain shape, a narrative structure, if you will, and an idea about how the characters will interact and who's on stage at a given moment. . . but often, as writers write, they surprise themselves when a character they had not expected to be on stage, asserts him/herself and, more often than not, changes the tenor if not the direction and shape of the story.

ColoradoGuy
02-15-2007, 08:44 PM
In terms of a character "taking over a story," what's meant is that the writer has a certain shape, a narrative structure, if you will, and an idea about how the characters will interact and who's on stage at a given moment. . . but often, as writers write, they surprise themselves when a character they had not expected to be on stage, asserts him/herself and, more often than not, changes the tenor if not the direction and shape of the story.
Interesting. I'm a long-time nonfiction writer of ordinary expository prose who is just now dabbling in fiction, and that's been my experience already. I'm just trying to figure out what's going on when it happens. Hence my question for the thread.

Cath
02-15-2007, 09:21 PM
I think there's a sense of becoming more familar with the characters as you write them. It's like making new friends (or enemies, of course), the more time you spend with them, the more you find out about them - what pushes their buttons, where they draw the line on different issues, what makes them act or withdraw. Sometimes it's a natural progression of seeking depth in the characters; sometimes it's a surprise - a twist that comes out of left field. I think the latter is when writers more often claim the character takes over.

robeiae
02-15-2007, 09:45 PM
Yeah, but I've heard authors claim that the characters actually took over the plot, driving it a way the author claims not to have seen coming. What I'm trying to do here is separate what is essentially a figure of speech, standard author-speak metaphor-trope, from an actual, real process.
I understand what you're saying. But what I'm saying is that it's just a reflection of presenting the "process" in different ways, i.e. it's a question of terminology.

For an author to claim that the plot went an unexpected way because of a character is not to say that he/she was no longer in control of the plot. It's just a way to note that the plot direction wasn't what was first planned/anticipated because of the process of characterization. It's a voyage of discovery, no? Even as I right this reply, I've said some things that were not distinctly in my mind when I started. To write down or express ideas opens the door, so to speak, for new ideas. That seems to be the core of the process, in my limited experience. To create some specialized non-conscious concept to reflect this seems kind of silly, to me anyway.

ColoradoGuy
02-15-2007, 10:03 PM
To create some specialized non-conscious concept to reflect this seems kind of silly, to me anyway.
I agree with you, in fact. I've always wondered if asserting such a thing as this somehow makes the process seem more interesting, ethereal, or in some way "artistic." Still, Medievalist is correct in saying that an awful lot of successful authors claim something like it is happening.

ETA: I've always been largely an empiricist, so perhaps I'm blinded by that viewpoint.

robeiae
02-15-2007, 10:16 PM
Blinded? No. Logically coherent? Yes.

Higgins
02-15-2007, 10:18 PM
I agree with you, in fact. I've always wondered if asserting such a thing as this somehow makes the process seem more interesting, ethereal, or in some way "artistic." Still, Medievalist is correct in saying that an awful lot of successful authors claim something like it is happening.

ETA: I've always been largely an empiricist, so perhaps I'm blinded by that viewpoint.


In rhetorical terms: to say that your "characters wrote" is to claim that you yourself are so adept at your artistry, so crafty at your craft, that you created characters with the life-like power of being able to compose their own story.
In more processural terms, to say your "characters wrote" is to say your original plan was vague or bad or at least ended up being altered a lot and since this is what interests you as a composer of tales, this is what you report.
A less likely explanation is the effect of the return of the repressed through various mechanisms.

Medievalist
02-15-2007, 11:46 PM
In rhetorical terms: to say that your "characters wrote" is to claim that you yourself are so adept at your artistry, so crafty at your craft, that you created characters with the life-like power of being able to compose their own story.

In what way is that description in "rhetorical terms"?

I'm not sure what "rhetorical" means there . . .

WildScribe
02-15-2007, 11:49 PM
Yeah, but I've heard authors claim that the characters actually took over the plot, driving it a way the author claims not to have seen coming. What I'm trying to do here is separate what is essentially a figure of speech, standard author-speak metaphor-trope, from an actual, real process.

This happens to me. I wouldn't call it automatic writing, but as my characters grow and develop, they start doing things that I don't always expect. In a recent scene that was supposed to be a little romantic, my character freaked. I read back and realized that it was perfectly natural considering something she had just gone through. Letting the characters come to life gives the story a more realistic feel - and adds some fun plot twists, too.

C.bronco
02-15-2007, 11:52 PM
It isn't automatic writing (though that could be in interesting premise for a scary novel).
You write your characters and at some point, they do what it is in their nature to do, some things you hadn't planned in your notes or outline.
I love it when my characters do stuff on their own. I love figuring out the plot as I go along. I just need to know where I'm ending before I start, not how I'll get there.
Sometimes we do things in writing without consciously acknowledging what we're doing. On some level, we are making connections and processing, but it just flows out without planning and is a happy surprise.

C.bronco
02-15-2007, 11:58 PM
In rhetorical terms: to say that your "characters wrote" is to claim that you yourself are so adept at your artistry, so crafty at your craft, that you created characters with the life-like power of being able to compose their own story.
In more processural terms, to say your "characters wrote" is to say your original plan was vague or bad or at least ended up being altered a lot and since this is what interests you as a composer of tales, this is what you report.
A less likely explanation is the effect of the return of the repressed through various mechanisms.
An athlete doesn't say to himself, "Okay, first I'll pivot, then step on the right foot, dribble twice and do a lay up." He's skilled, he's practiced, he's "in the zone" and it's like magic: slam dunk. Everything he knows synthesizes in those moments; it comes together and it works.
The writer is, in this way, much the same.

Higgins
02-16-2007, 12:02 AM
In what way is that description in "rhetorical terms"?

I'm not sure what "rhetorical" means there . . .


I think the idea of "characters writing" draws on the ancient topos of
the "art so lifelike that..." it does some other lifelike thing.

The reason for specifying "rhetorical" is a bit paradoxical in that the "so lifelike" topos is so dead (so to speak) that some reference to bringing it up as a ploy or topos gives some life back to the more or less buried and elided implications of characters so lively that they write their own stories.


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Literary_topos

or this:

http://www.cambridge.org/us/catalogue/catalogue.asp?isbn=9780521821599&ss=exc

Higgins
02-16-2007, 12:07 AM
An athlete doesn't say to himself, "Okay, first I'll pivot, then step on the right foot, dribble twice and do a lay up." He's skilled, he's practiced, he's "in the zone" and it's like magic: slam dunk. Everything he knows synthesizes in those moments; it comes together and it works.
The writer is, in this way, much the same.

A good or fluent writer is no doubt busy with plenty of other things and no doubt innocently falls to the first lingering bit of left-over ancient rhetorical topoi that he comes across. In this case the "so lifelike" image is barely there and so the writer who uses it is barely using it in a consciously deceptive way.

If you are going on and all is going well....from your point of view, given what you are noticing...the characters may be doing all the work....

And yet it is not literally true and there is a nice cluster of associations there, mostly buried ("things so lifelike")...and without thinking, any good writer uses them to explain himself in a conconventionally acceptable way.

Cath
02-16-2007, 12:32 AM
In rhetorical terms: to say that your "characters wrote" is to claim that you yourself are so adept at your artistry, so crafty at your craft, that you created characters with the life-like power of being able to compose their own story.
I think some writers just are that good.

I like the basketball metaphor cBronco used - when you get so good at something that the decisions happen at a subconscious not a conscious level.

And it's difficult to deny that some characters can come alive in your mind when you're reading them - why shouldn't they when you're writing them?


In more processural terms, to say your "characters wrote" is to say your original plan was vague or bad or at least ended up being altered a lot...
Or you're just not so much of a control freak that you have everything planned to the n'th degree - which IMO leads to stagnant, flat and predictable characters.

robeiae
02-16-2007, 12:59 AM
Or you're just not so much of a control freak that you have everything planned to the n'th degree - which IMO leads to stagnant, flat and predictable characters.
Hey now! Be nice to me...I'm trying. Really.

C.bronco
02-16-2007, 05:58 AM
A good or fluent writer is no doubt busy with plenty of other things and no doubt innocently falls to the first lingering bit of left-over ancient rhetorical topoi that he comes across. In this case the "so lifelike" image is barely there (http://www.serverlogic3.com/lm/rtl3.asp?si=11&k=barely%20there) and so the writer who uses it is barely using it in a consciously deceptive way.

If you are going on and all is going well....from your point of view, given what you are noticing...the characters may be doing all the work....

And yet it is not literally true and there is a nice cluster of associations there, mostly buried ("things so lifelike")...and without thinking, any good writer uses them to explain himself in a conconventionally acceptable way.
Maybe. To an athlete, it feels like flying. In writing, it is like magic. The brain is working on so many more levels that we can consciously acknowledge. The characters come to life. We create worlds, and people within those worlds. The people then do what it is that they do. We may not have planned it. It is not a contrived decision, but it remains true to our intention. We wanted those people there for a reason.
There's a point when you need to let go of the self-conscious notion of "what literary device shall I use?" or "how shall I be clever." It ain't all that stuff. At some point, you just tell the story, and all the stuff you've mastered along the way falls into place.

Did I say I was passionate about writing? I love it. I love to write the book I wanted to read. It's all good.

Medievalist
02-16-2007, 06:00 AM
A good or fluent writer is no doubt busy with plenty of other things and no doubt innocently falls to the first lingering bit of left-over ancient rhetorical topoi that he comes across. In this case the "so lifelike" image is barely there and so the writer who uses it is barely using it in a consciously deceptive way.

You are confusing commonplaces, koinoi topoi, with cliches.

The topoi were virtues, not vices, and they still are; the topoi are important aids to invention.

ColoradoGuy
02-16-2007, 06:34 AM
I have to say that part of my interest in this issue gets back to the old question: "do we need language in order to think?" If actions of our own created characters sometimes literally spring fully-formed from our mind to the page, with minimal conscious effort on our part, than this seems to bypass the usual, more mundane aspects of writing. I know anecdotes don't prove anything, but if so many writers identify something like this happening to them, there must be something to it. But what?

We do know the brain's synaptic pathways become more hard-wired with constant use, so maybe the sports metaphor is the best one: with constant use and practice the process becomes nearly an unconscious one.

So is this writing as revelation, the author now and then "discovering" the story in his or her own brain? We've certainly got venerable metaphoric figures of speech that sound like it, e.g. "flash of insight," "bolt from the blue."

Higgins
02-16-2007, 07:04 AM
You are confusing commonplaces, koinoi topoi, with cliches.

The topoi were virtues, not vices, and they still are; the topoi are important aids to invention.

I'm as fond of your average topos as the next man. The topos of "so lifelike that (other lifelike things happen)" is just barely there in the
"my characters wrote my book" (rhetorical) ploy. Certainly it is not explicit there.

Higgins
02-16-2007, 07:15 AM
So is this writing as revelation, the author now and then "discovering" the story in his or her own brain? We've certainly got venerable metaphoric figures of speech that sound like it, e.g. "flash of insight," "bolt from the blue."

In my experience,
the story goes along, but I have lots of ways or techniques to keep it from becoming too predictable. I could see such things as "this or that writing itself" since I certainly don't foresee all the twists and turns more than a few chapters at a time and even then they don't all twist as expected...but its a compositional technique, not a series of revelations.
I suppose when I am a good enough writer I'll just think of it all as writing itself, but since I can still think with some detachment about my writing, I can see it is my own compositional technique that keeps things rolling.

C.bronco
02-16-2007, 07:53 AM
Ways and techniques... okay, what about what I said before? At some point the athlete comes out. At some point, it does converge.
Hmmm, hmmm, hmm.
Premeditated isn't always best.
E.A. Poe tried to insist The Raven was concocted just so. I don't believe it. He did it in a fit of inispration. At some point pedadgogy dies, and artistianship takes over.

pdr
02-16-2007, 09:23 AM
You don't have to have just two camps, the mythical, voices from the deep calling to me or the it's just the writer's expertise and skills and experience.

Quite a few authors I've interviewed, Michael Pearce and Alan Garner most notably and amusingly, say something like this:

They have the MC, some idea of the plot, they begin to write. Then there comes a sticking place.

Like a cook they have the ingredients, but the mixing isn't going well.

During this sticking place they 'lie around'. Garner reads light whodunits and Pearce agonises over English cricket or soccer (according to the season). They want to plan the plot and get going but it won't come. They persist, because they are writers and suddenly one day it all falls into place and their characters get going and they can finish.

What's of interest is the lying around. Forcing the story, making themselves plan it, doesn't work They don't consciously think about or work on the novel, they let their 'back brain', subconscious, right brain (Whatever you prefer to call it) take over whilst they do other things.

Alan Garner said that for 'The Owl Service' he just had three things, the pattern of flowers on his dinner service, a pattern that could be put together in the shape of owls, the knowledge of the Welsh myth and his MC. He had to wait for them to 'come together' and shape the novel.

I know in my own writing that often a character springs into my head, demanding their story be told. If I try to write their story immediately I stick after a few paragraphs. I have to wait, putting them politely into the back of my head until I 'see' them somewhere. Even then I can only write slowly, a few paragraphs at a time, waiting for all the things in my head that make me, along with the creative side of my brain, to put the pieces together.

So perhaps it's not simply either 'the voices' or the writer's skills that make the story but both of them. Perhaps a successful writer allows hir life experiences and hir creativity to both do the work and so both together make and tell the story?

alaskamatt17
02-16-2007, 09:58 AM
I've heard large numbers of published fiction writers -- yeah, people you'd know, talk about character's "taking over" and "listening to the voices" in their heads.

It's not true, by any means, of all writers.

What's meant by listening to the voices is that for many writers they do actually "hear" in their mind/imagination their characters telling them stories; they reshape and reorganize and revise as they write.

In terms of a character "taking over a story," what's meant is that the writer has a certain shape, a narrative structure, if you will, and an idea about how the characters will interact and who's on stage at a given moment. . . but often, as writers write, they surprise themselves when a character they had not expected to be on stage, asserts him/herself and, more often than not, changes the tenor if not the direction and shape of the story.

When this happens to me I don't think it's a matter of the characters taking over, it's just me, the writer, finding out that I what I thought would work doesn't, but there's another option that does. There's nothing mystical about it. Stories change. Minds wander. I think that's really all there is to it.

Higgins
02-16-2007, 05:53 PM
You don't have to have just two camps, the mythical, voices from the deep calling to me or the it's just the writer's expertise and skills and experience.

So perhaps it's not simply either 'the voices' or the writer's skills that make the story but both of them. Perhaps a successful writer allows hir life experiences and hir creativity to both do the work and so both together make and tell the story?

I was including various techniques for getting the imagination to quit stalling as techniques. Obviously if you are pushing for a certain story
(of which maybe at first you only know a few elements), one of your compositional techniques is to do whatever you need to do to get the imagery to appear. I myself have two compositional rhythms: 1) things are clear and I write a chapter or two 2) I come to a stopping place or turning point and then it takes a while to work things out and during the working out such things happen as characters getting redefined in unexpected ways....however, I assume I have just learned to let the picturing process run and I only pick up on the significant stuff...ie not that the "unexpected" stuff "comes from nowhere"....but that lots of hopeful imagistic crap gets the big ho hum heave -ho from my more ordered ideas.

wrinkles
02-16-2007, 10:11 PM
Iím a big believer in the unconscious. I believe it is 99% of what we are, with consciousness being a late and strange biological occurrence. Consciousness is a thin, fragile membrane overlaying the unconsciousness that served us well for millions of years. It is exceedingly powerful, however; to see this we only have to look around at the world it has created. I think of consciousness as a small group of trained, armed, and ruthless warriors ruling over a vast and rich country with a disorganized and pre-occupied population.

As for writing and characters taking over a story and going in unexpected directions, this doesnít surprise me at all, and in my short writing history, Iíve already experienced it. While consciousness dominates, it cannot always keep the unconscious suppressed, and subjective endeavors, such as writing, are made better when the unconscious has input.

I try to solicit this input like in the examples given by pdr. My strategies, though, are driving long distances (east to west seems to work better) and mowing the lawn. I also get unsolicited, but welcome, unconscious input at those times when consciousness is at its lowest ebb: when I am sick, or just before falling asleep when very tired.

I try to focus my unconscious work force by concentrating on a single issue with my WIP. Very often it is an upcoming scene that is important, but amorphous; or it could be a plot point that needs to work better for a characterís actions to be understood. Then, invariably, so far at least, during one of those times above, unbidden, the scene will play out, or plot point will resolve itself, and again, so far at least, the solution has been a good one. To me, anyway.

I also get a lot of connections among the characters, story arcs, and themes from my unconscious. This doesnít surprise me either, since it seems that synthesis is the strength of the unconscious, and whatever infinitesimally small spark of genius my WIP may have, if any, will come from this.

Del
02-16-2007, 11:25 PM
Deeply rooted in our minds is the self. Call it subconscious, super subconscious, soul or the collective consciousness, it is simply who we are. Language is a man created conscious effort toward communications. We have learned to think in it but it isn’t by any means our native state. We have conditioned our minds to think how we talk. It is unfortunate because it slows the thought process intensely. Indeed, most of us do not use language properly at all. It is a wonder how we can write when we hear wrong speech nearly consistently.

Our characters start out shallow. They are surface personalities only. As we progress our stories we equate these characters to personalities we are familiar with; our own, a neighbor, a TV star, or all the above. As evolution continues, we embed our characters deeper into our being, we can even love them. Our thought processes are then driven by the people we have built the characters around. There are things we surmise they would do and how they would react. When the mind lets go of the language laden thought process and begins to operate in native mode we are not as aware of the surmises that we put our characters through. It seems automatic. It seems that the characters are driving themselves, however it is just how we would expect our real-life character models to react.

This deep automatic thinking has been referred to as the jazz, the magic, the high, even the force. In reality, it is simply dropping away from the learned process of slowing our own thinking for the sake of the word and using thought the way nature had intended all along. It is natural and it is the way we all love to write. For me it is truly a high. It is also when I am most productive.

Disclaimer: IMHO

Rhea L
02-23-2007, 09:06 PM
To me, saying that the characters "took over" the story is a way of saying that they "came to life". Both are metaphors, and - in my case - they illustrate the same thing. I've come to the point where my characters are believable as people to someone other than myself (when they take over, my beta readers can usually pinpoint it and say that yes, *this* is where it gets good).

I write without an outline - all I need to start is a character or two with a story to tell, and an idea where they end up when the story is over. Getting there is a process of discovery - in other words, it's what keeps me writing - I want to know what happens next. A lot of times I'll have an idea for a scene that I know will happen somewhere down the road; I can imagine it down to the smallest details, and yet, when the time comes to write it, my characters usually take it somewhere else. Or "decide" that it's not what happens at all. This, I believe, stems directly from character development - when I begin, I have a vague idea about who they are. It's my guess what they'd do in a given situation. And yet, as the story progresses and the characters telling it take on solid shapes, the things they do aren't my guesses anymore, but rather their logical actions and reactions dictated by who they are.

I enjoy having the story "taken over" by the characters because it makes them feel all the more real - and if they feel real to me, chances are they'll feel similar to the readers. And that, I believe, is the point.

cattywampus
02-25-2007, 09:53 PM
I'm a great believer in the power of the subconscious. I believe that if we would just let it, our subconscious mind would furnish us with enough material to write shelves and shelves of books. To access it, we must empty our conscious mind. The best way to do this is to lay back and relax, try not to think of anything. Self-hypnosis can be helpful here.

An evil entity revealing itself through automatic writing...now there's a scary thought.