Possession is 9/10th’s Of My Protagonist

The Author At Work

Last night, as I was dawdling along and trying for the zillionth time to tie up or trim off a pesky dangling plot thread, one of my characters popped up and engaged my brain in a very interesting debate about heaven, hell, life, death, love, loyalty, need, want and morality. By the time I came up for air, my Paranormal-Lite story had arguably reached a point where the Lite might not apply anymore. And I suddenly had five pages of pretty amazing dialogue that–even if it doesn’t make it past the final edit–is going to change my perception of this character forever. Fortunately in a good way. It doesn’t always work out like that.

The thing is, this particular character has always been a fairly sharp individual – very pragmatic and common-sensical – but in the three or four years I’ve known her, she never once gave me an indication of this sort of uber-deep thinking capacity. And now she, like several other characters in my authorial stable, has proven that she’s a heck of a lot smarter than I am.

I’ve always had an inferiority complex, mind you, but it’s a little ridiculous when even the people I make up in my head, can run intellectual circles around me.

Please tell me that I’m not the only one this has ever happened to.

Don’t misunderstand. I’m not talking about characters who are more talented than I am. That’s easy. If I want talent, well, let my protagonist sit down to play relevant bits of Mozart’s Concerto No. 10 in E-flat major for Two Pianos, K. 365. And lo, there is talent. I don’t have to play it. (I never got past “Ponies At Play” when I took lessons with Mrs. Stolis when I was like, seven.) It’s sufficient that you know it was played and played well. Want a different kind of talent? Just slide a Super Bowl championship ring on Mr. Protagonist’s finger. Or wealth? Give Ms. Protag a Limo and driver named Raoul. No problemo! How about something a little less measurable like courage? Badabing, a few seconds at the keyboard and my protag just took one for the President and double-tapped the bad guy to boot.

I’m not necessarily talking about planned intellect either. I mean, when it comes to really smart characters, the writer can’t just talk the talk, you have to walk the walk all over the page. The evil mastermind has to be a mastermind in more than just job description. But you can plan for that. You can research other evil masterminds, and do up outlines or storyboards or 3×5 cards, and have Roget’s Thesaurus and My Big Book O’ Thermonuclear Dynamics on standby for on the fly research.

Nope, I’m talking about the ambush. I’m talking about the character who’s puttering along in a nicely crafted little story arc and suddenly stops, turns around slowly and says in a slightly menacing (or at least condescending) tone, “You think you know who I am. You don’t know Jack.” Or Jill. Whoever. And they jump the tracks, kick over the house of cards, and take you on the mental metaphor of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride with stuff that you could not in a million years have come up with on your own.

Except that you did.


It’s like getting kicked in the head and becoming a temporary savant. Or like crashing a Mensa cocktail party. Again, it’s all in a good way, but it’s a little bizarre when your brain gets hijacked and your only apparent value is being able to take dictation. It’s slightly … creepifying.

I’m going to throw this out there for all the writers who meander in, and I’d really love to hear about your experiences. Heaven forbid I find out I’m on my own, because I really can’t afford a Pshrink on my salary.

Has this ever happened to you? Do your characters ever give you more than you ever asked for? Are they brighter than you? Do they let you know it? Do they make you wonder where the heck they came from?

Do we need to start a support group?

Categories: Writing Life | Tags: , , , , | 6 Comments

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6 thoughts on “Possession is 9/10th’s Of My Protagonist

  1. Awesome post, Sue!

    No, you’re not alone 😉 I once wrote an entire book, got to the last chapter where the bad guy is revealed and a totally different character stood up and said, “I did it!!!”

    I was like–what? No-you most certainly did not do it. He did it.

    She was adamant though and when I picked back through the plot, I saw that she could very well have done it, and she had a more passionate motivation. So okay–I let her go down for murder. (Shows her for talking out of turn!)

    My characters definitely take on a life of their own. In my last book, Detour 2 Death, I show Kaylee using her psychic powers to look for Davey at the hospital. She got all snarky on me and said, “What am I? Super Psychic Woman here?” I laughed and added it in.

    I think what makes great writing really great, and this is one of THE reasons I so badly wanted Servant to the Wolf, is a writer who *listens* to their characters. It really helps, too, when they’re smarter than we are!!

    Great post, Sue!!


  2. pfrsue

    Hi Jenny!

    I’m still hoping a few more people will chime in, but thanks for responding!

    I love that your character unexpectedly stood up and took the murder rap, and apparently rightly so! I think that’s one of the reasons why I’ve never gotten bored being a writer. I don’t always know what’s going to happen, even though I’m the one writing the story. 🙂

    It’s funny, but a similar incident happened to me not long ago when I finished the first draft of a work and realized that I’d made a fundamental mistake in a whodunit arc. I pondered it for the better part of a week, trying to find a workable solution that would salvage the plot without needing an entire rewrite. Finally a character sitting waaaay back in the corner of my mind (behind the potted rubber tree plant) yawned and said, “Motives schmotives. Who had opportunity? Could have been me, n’est-ce pas?” I can’t believe I didn’t think of that myself. Well, I guess I did. But I didn’t. 🙂

    Although he was a lot more polite about it, one of my characters in Servant To The Wolf (and thank you for the lovely compliment, by the way!) pulled a similar stunt on me. When he did, he became a much more complicated person, threw a really neat twist into the plot and I’m convinced that the story is much stronger for it.

    Anyway, I’m still hoping a few other writers will show up. I mean, I can see people are reading this thing. Since when do writers not want to talk about their characters? C’mon people!


  3. Pat

    I can’t help but love it when a character who lives in my mind develops a mind of their own. If they invent plot twists I hadn’t thought of, my first instinct is to go with their ideas. Then again, should I really consider those imaginary folks in my head to have the be-all and end-all of good ideas? Don’t I send out work for critique and subsequently decide if the suggestions I receive are or are not helpful?

    Most of the time I think it’s best to rein in the character and give their suggestions some impartial evaluation. Trouble is, doggone it, most of the time they’re right. It’s as if they’re channeling their story via my fingers on the keyboard, but it is THEIR story. I’m convinced–almost completely, anyway–that when a character leads me down a path I hadn’t considered, I’d better follow.

    • pfrsue

      Hi Pat!

      I tend to let my characters take the reins and go for a long gallop if they want to, but I always change the file name first. That way, if they run off a cliff, or throw a shoe halfway along, or I decide days or weeks later that I shouldn’t have opened the gate after all, I can go right back to where I left off. 🙂

      Thanks for replying!

  4. Claudia Anderson

    I have to admit that I envy you..someone who can have ten different characters going in ten different directions at one time. Perhaps I need to write what streams in..not what seems logical. Having said that, I must admit that in my last novel I had the ending all planned out. Then one day in summer, while riding my tractor/mower around and around the hairy field, a brand new ending popped into my head. One that I had never entertained before. It was totally different than what I had originally intended. I wrote it, and I think it worked more than perfectly..

    Is that what you mean?

    Perhaps I am afraid to write characters that are smarter, more talented, more beautiful, and more cunning than myself (which isn’t hard to outdo)..

    • pfrsue

      Claudia, if I didn’t write characters who were smarter, more talented, more beautiful and more cunning than I am, I’d have cornered the market on stories about trolls living under bridges. LOL!!!!

      What you said about having a thought when you were riding the tractor makes perfect sense to me. It’s times like those when the mind starts to wander and it’s more likely that we’ll get into “the zone.” That’s when some really interesting stuff can happen. Then the trick is to hang on to it until you can write it down! It’s all right brain stuff, probably, but I don’t remember the science of it.

      And yes, that was EXACTLY what I meant. When they step in, take over and write themselves, especially when they turn out to be much more than you thought they were…that’s when I start wondering just WHO is in my head writing this stuff, cause it sure can’t be me!

      I’m really glad you stopped by! 🙂


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