The Characters are Ruining It

It’s probably not going to be an Internet-breaking observation that characters can sometimes seem to take on a life of their own when you are writing fiction.

Writing day-in and day- out for months some characters (more often primary than secondary) start to become almost as “real” to you as anyone else in your life.

Obviously these imagined creatures don’t have some kind of actual supernatural life. The author who thought that would be abdicating responsibility for their writing. It would also be a bit pretentious.

There are many authors who say it never happens to them but in my experience characters can surprise – sometimes having enough imaginative life to break out and alter the plot.

Which may not be a bad thing. Perhaps a well-drawn character makes us follow the cadences and rhythms of real life – rather than an author trying to squeeze characters into a high concept plot.

This gap between the original masterplan and the final draft reminds me of the gap between what the passionate Chorus claims in Shakespeare’s Henry V and the behaviour of the actual characters.

The chorus claims “silken dalliance in the wardrobe lies” as England’s youth arms itself for the battle with France. All we actually see on stage are characters in a Cheapside drinking den mourning the death of a friend.

The audience are told to use their imagination to help the author portray magnificent battle scenes. In fact all we see later is the comic character Pistol taking a cowardly Frenchman prisoner.

The characters seem determined to undermine the play’s patriotic ambitions.

As a journalist I found editors sometimes thought they knew what a story was before they sent you off somewhere to investigate it. Real life, and real characters, were always more complex – and interesting – than the original idea.

Imagined characters aren’t real but they can be quite “real” – and maybe worth listening to occasionally.


An audio version of this blog is available here:


characters are - dickens_dream_Robert W. Buss 1870 -1875

“Dickens Dream” by Robert W Buss, 1875

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