Let me paraphrase a recent conversation with my sister.
RUTHANN: …and it wasn’t until I was working on that rough draft that I realized this character is kind of an arrogant jerk.
RUTHANN: I was so surprised when he and his sister started fighting in every other scene! I said, “I thought you guys got along really well!” And they said, “Well yeah, usually we do, but he’s being such a jerk right now!”
RUTHANN: What do you mean, what?
BECCA: You are talking like your characters… like they’re… you just told me about a conversation in which they talked back!
RUTHANN: Well, yeah.
BECCA: …Well, I guess you wouldn’t actually be part of the family if you were normal.
RUTHANN: What did I say?
I guess I knew that writers think a little differently than others. What I didn’t realize is that the others aren’t as aware of it as the writers are. I just assumed that my sister would take it in stride that I treat my characters like they’re actual people, even though she has never experienced anything like that herself. Somehow, even after all this time being in the same family as a storyteller, she never caught onto the fact that this is how writers and their stories interact. I don’t know how that happened. I thought I talked like that often enough (usually with much crazier scenarios than the conversation described above) that people in my family would be used to it by now. But maybe I’ve only talked that way with other writers. Is this a secret we keep among ourselves? Should I just not bother trying to talk about it with others?
I’ve talked with enough other writers to know that the way my characters can sometimes grab the steering wheel away from me in the middle of a story, flashing me completely unrepentant grins as they push me aside, is not at all unique. I’ve even heard people suggest that if this doesn’t happen, the story is too flat. I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know that some of the very best story elements come from characters doing things their “creator” never saw coming. My effort to communicate this to my sister was something less than sophisticated.
RUTHANN: I’m not the only one!
BECCA: Did the voices in your head tell you that?
Maybe I’m breaking some kind of writers’ taboo by talking about this where people who don’t tell stories can see. Nevertheless, I am here to reveal the truth about stories. You see, people who only read stories see them as the product of the writer, constructed and controlled by them. Writers, on the other hand, know that stories are alive.
I don’t mean something like Dr. Frankenstein’s, “It is alive!!” I’m talking more like Genesis, when God breathes life into his creation. That’s what writers do with their stories (albeit on a much smaller scale). And like Adam, the stories take on their own life, complete with free will. Have you ever heard a writer talking about the need to keep a story outline flexible? They don’t mean, “in case I come up with something better later.” They mean, “because I have to be ready for the characters to take it in a different direction.” Because that is what characters do. It’s not the exception; it’s the norm. Good thing, too; we can only be so clever on our own power, you know. It's not just good to get that help. It's necessary.
Now you may either express your dismay at my crumbling sanity or reaffirm my belief that all of that is actually true.