-J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
I’m a pretty organized kind of guy. I run my classroom with a very organized hand --- in fact, I’m fairly sure my students would say very emphatically that I structure things right down to the last detail, with the finesse of a drill sergeant. And my home life tends to be fairly organized too, if perhaps a tad more relaxed.
Now, on a seemingly unrelated note (although it’s very related, I promise), there’s a lot of chatter on my social media feed right now about NaNoWriMo --- National Novel Writing Month, for those of you who think that acronym is completely nonsensical. It involves undertaking a challenge to write a 50,000-word novel during the month of November. I don’t participate. I’m not a huge fan of the process, and if you want to know why, you can read my thoughts on the matter here if you’re interested. But it does seem to have sparked some renewed debate on whether being a plotter or a pantser --- someone who writes with or without much story planning --- is the better approach to writing. Given what I’ve told you, it would be logical for you to assume I’m a plotter. So it may come as something of a surprise when I say that I tend to throw most of my personal organizational habits out the window when it comes to writing. I’m not really a plotter.
I didn’t start out that way. Honest. I began by making fairly copious notes about what was going to happen, and when, and in what order, and which characters would undertake which actions, and so on, right down the line. Eyes left! Quick march! and all that. It was very tidy.
Except it didn’t work. And it’s all my characters’ fault. Because I think --- for me, anyway --- the question began to loom large in my concrete-sequential thought processes: are my characters puppets, or people?
You see, puppets do as they’re told. They have no independent ideas, no self-will. Without the puppeteer pulling those strings, puppets undertake precisely nothing. And literary puppets --- story characters --- move woodenly along with all the animation of a twig.
People --- ah, now that’s a different kettle of fish altogether. People are maddeningly independent. Almost all humans have a strong bloody-minded streak to them. It seems to be genetically hardwired into us. It could simultaneously be our greatest asset, and our greatest weakness. People don’t automatically do as they’re told and go where they’re directed. Free will’s a bitch at times, isn’t it? So literary people --- also story characters --- tend to look up at the writer with a jaundiced eye and say, “No, I don’t want to do that. I’m going to do this instead. And you can’t stop me.”
When this started to happen to me --- fairly early on as a writer --- I paused and gave the matter some thought. And I decided I wasn’t going to even try to stop my characters from going their own way. Because it meant that, somehow, they had wondrously come to some sort of life, somewhere in the nanospace between keyboard and page. I felt like Geppetto watching Pinocchio becoming a real boy.
(Now, this isn’t to say you can’t forecast the actions of people/characters. After all, there are times when many of us are very much creatures of habit. But even the most hidebound person will, from time to time, do things that are completely out of character. Just look at Gandalf’s delighted comments at the beginning of this post.)
Here’s how interaction works between people (take notes, please; there’ll be a quiz on this at the end): one person says something to another person; the second person responds --- usually completely spontaneously, because we mostly tend to be That Sort Of Bear (something that often times gets us into trouble, doesn’t it?) --- and then the first person responds again, and so on. We have now built a chain of either statements or actions that constitutes life or story events. Repeat sequence over and over again, and you’ve now built a life --- or a novel.
So this was all quite liberating for me as a writer. Yeah, I still think and write out at least a general outline of where my story’s headed. But not too detailed an outline, because I know perfectly well that at least one character is going to derail that outline before much time has elapsed. It may be only one box car that goes off the rails, or it could be the entire damned train. Either way, it’s very exciting, at least in this literary metaphor, because there’s been no loss of life or destruction of property (well, figuratively speaking… characters may die; empires may fall; but you get my drift, I hope).
If you ask yourself the question “are my characters people, or puppets?” I think most writers would desire the former. Be forewarned, however: it will result in some literary mayhem from time to time.
But it’s a lot more fun than watching a pair of marionettes singing
“High on a hill was a lonely goatherd
Lay ee odl lay ee odl lay hee hoo
Loud was the voice of the lonely goatherd
Lay ee odl lay ee odl-oo”
And if the little girl in a pale pink coat ultimately decides she doesn’t want to get together with the lonely goatherd because he smells of goats and has the manners of same… well, that’s okay, too.