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Saturday, June 20, 2020

Who Says the Author is in Charge? by Liz Milliron

If you are a writer, what I am about to describe may be a familiar scenario.

There you are, in the zone. The words are flowing, the gears are spinning, and the story is humming along. Suddenly, WHAM! You hit a wall that just will not give way. The character refuses to take direction. Perhaps the conversation goes something like this:

Author: Go through the door.

Character: No.

A: Why not? It’s just a door. Grab the handle and turn.

C: I don’t want to.

A: Come on, I need you to go through the door. Open it!

C: No. I’m not gonna do it AND YOU CAN’T MAKE ME!

This is where some people (my husband included) look at me funny. “But,” they say, “you’re the author. You’re in charge.” Ha, ha, if only. Saying this out loud may get you weird looks, nervous laughs, or suggestions of a psych eval. But my writer friends know better.

The struggle is real.

Such a scenario occurred to me in the book I just completed, the second in my Home Front Mysteries series, The Stories We Tell. Except it was more than just opening a door. I had a murder victim who refused to be murdered.

The refusal brought the story to a standstill. Each day, I wrote, brainstormed, begged, cajoled, and pleaded with this character. Nothing doing. Each day’s words were deleted. “I was not murdered.” But, but, but…I set that up chapters ago. Of course you were. “Nope. Dead, yes. Murdered, no.” I tried scenario after scenario to make it work. Every attempt fell flat.

My critique partners (Including WWK’s own Annette Dashofy) tried to help me by offering suggestions. I took them back to the character. “Absolutely not” was the response.

“This is intolerable,” I said. “I have a deadline to meet.”

The character shrugged, totally oblivious to my deadline and my need to make the story the way I wanted it to be.

You may have guessed what happened. I caved. The character had not been murdered. Instead, a different character, one I had been intending to keep alive, was bumped off. As soon as I made that decision, the story resumed its rapid pace. The dam broke and the words flowed. I hit my deadline and I think the ending worked out rather well.

I also learned a valuable lesson. When stuck, listen to your characters. They often know better than you do.

Writers, has this ever happened to you and how did you deal with it? Readers, what do you think? Should the author let a character be in charge?

Liz Milliron is the author of The Laurel Highlands Mysteries series, set in the scenic Laurel Highlands and The Homefront Mysteries, set in Buffalo, NY during the early years of World War II. Broken Trust, the third in the Laurel Highlands Mysteries, is due to be released on August 11, 2020. The first book of the Homefront Mysteries, The Enemy We Don’t Know, was released in February 2020. Soon to be an empty-nester, Liz lives outside Pittsburgh with her husband, two children, and a retired-racer greyhound.


Margaret S. Hamilton said...

My main character gets pretty snarky, but I want to keep her alive and sane, so I save the snappy comebacks for dialogue with her teenage daughter.

KM Rockwood said...

When I reached the last chapter of the very first mystery I wrote (which shall deservedly remain in my file drawer forever) I realized I had been wrong all along about who the murderer was. A serious lesson in who's in charge here.

Kait said...

One of my books did that to me. It wasn't until the end of the second draft with the deadline looming that I heard snarky laughter as one of my characters celebrated the fact that he had gotten away with murder. I went back and read the book with new eyes - yep, it was all there - my original ending framed an innocent man - just as my murderer intended.

Kaye George said...

I'll never forget the time I was finishing up the book, everything neatly wrapped, and a character kissed another one, out of nowhere--completely blew me out of the water! I didn't know they had feelings for each other! They were keeping that secret from me. They are SO sneaky, those characters.

Storyteller Mary said...

That's very spooky, very Twilight Zone. What if . . . ?

Liz Milliron said...

I am so sorry for the delay - I was offline for a lot of the weekend!

Margaret - dialogue is always good for getting the snark out.

KM - that happens to me ALL THE TIME!

Kait, it's like our imagination knows and takes care of it for us - even when we aren't paying attention!

Kaye, a secret romance. I love it!

Mary - cue the music. ;-)