Shop Talk: Character-Driven

Character-driven: it’s a phrase that’s become so common in reviews and articles about publishing that it’s in danger of becoming a cliche–perhaps it already has. But I live with the reality of a character-driven career. I am haunted, teased, cajoled, intrigued, scolded by my characters all the time. So I’ve set out to write a series of posts about what “character-driven” means to me.

Take, for example, Queen Philippa, wife of King Edward III. I’ve written about her–well, technically Candace has written about her– in the Owen Archer crime novels as Archbishop Thoresby’s beloved friend, the woman he held in highest esteem. I wrote about her as the ambivalent third party in the Alice Perrers/King Edward/Queen Philippa triangle in The King’s Mistress. And now in my books about Joan of Kent, wife of Philippa’s eldest son, the queen has become, in the second draft of the first book, a much more complex character than I’d allowed her to be before–let me correct that, than she’d revealed to me before. It was as I drew to the end of the first draft that she grew edgier, more demanding, more controlling. And as I wrote the long outline restructuring the first draft in prep for the second, she took over the beginning of the book. This is what I mean by character-driven from the writer’s point of view–every time I tried to write the prologue from either Joan’s or a fictional character’s point of view, Philippa took over. She’s angry, worried, frustrated, and she wants to make that clear from the start.

Much the same thing happened with Alice Perrers when I began The King’s Mistress. I intended to write in third person, from multiple points of view, but she insisted on turning every scene I wrote into first person. All the she’s referring to Alice became I’s. I couldn’t escape it, so I gave in. Fortunately Queen Philippa has not gone so far as to insist on first person. But she has a lock on the prologue.

If I seem to be complaining, I’m not, not really. It’s when my characters begin to wake me in the night with corrections to a scene or react to something that’s going on as I write, refusing to move in the direction I’d intended, that I know I’ve brought them to life. Frankly, for me, that’s what it’s all about, this writing life.

3 Comments on “Shop Talk: Character-Driven

  1. The amazing thing I find with character driven fiction writing, is the way a character’s development can influence, change and, in some cases, completely re route the story line. As a character develops you suddenly realise that they would not react in a particular way, which can have intriguing plotting results. One of the joys I find is in stumbling into an unexpected diversion that leads either to a brick wall or to a mental explosion of imaginative fervour flowering a wealth of new possibilities for sub plots and ruses. Even when the main character is in the first person I can be delighted by the new turns “I” end up taking. Good plots deserve great characters.

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    • Yes! I’m working on a post (actually, Candace is) about my (her) ambivalence when a character who was planned as a villain decides to reveal her or his depth. Have you had the experience of a dialogue being highjacked? It happens to me all the time.

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      • It’s that unnerving experience where a character ‘s life expands beyond the pen/keyboard and talks in a voice outside the writer’s conscious, crawling to the edge of the author’s control. In another genre it could develop into a plot of its own where the fictional characters dominate the writer’s reality. I might bear that in mind for the future!

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