Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Who's Telling This Story Anyway?

This top post of 2016 was first published on May 24th.

Photo by Cara Lopez Lee

I’ve heard some fiction authors talk about characters as if the writer is the boss and the characters are employees who do what the boss tells them to do. I’ve heard other authors talk about characters as if the inmates are running the asylum: the writer enters the schizophrenic place in his or her mind where imaginary people appear, and those people say and do things that feel outside the writer’s control.

Just who’s in charge here?

In the instance of characters as employees, sometimes the author has a plan and then changes his or her mind, and the characters follow the new plan. In the instance of characters as instigators, sometimes the author has a plan and then the characters change their minds, because they know that nobody with their characteristics would ever engage in such shenanigans. We sometimes say such characters have minds of their own, but since they live in our minds, aren’t their minds just another corner of ours? Perhaps the subconscious.

Maybe we can take it a step farther, and consider whether we and these characters form part of what Carl Jung called the collective unconscious: the human tendency, as a group, to be disposed to shared experiences and repeated patterns of behavior. In other words, we all share in human nature, so when we dive deep within ourselves for answers, we often find universal wisdom, something all storytellers dip into. We recognize archetypes of humanity and therefore have an innate sense of the way certain character types are likely to respond to certain situations.

That might sound like it takes the magic out of storytelling, but maybe it is the magic: the way the collective experience of human nature can still hold our rapt attention after so many millennia of stories. 

Sometimes authors write stories that seem to come through them as if from some other realm. If we’re lucky, we experience the feeling that the characters we create take on lives of their own. At those moments, the story almost writes itself.

Is that really so strange? After all, it’s not much different from the way we live our lives.

Every moment, life asks us to make choices that can carry us to a variety of destinations, some mundane some interesting. We never know exactly where we’re headed: life or death, love or loss, victory or defeat, peace or battle. Most of the time we may simply get out of bed, work, eat, use the bathroom, exercise, watch Netflix, brush our teeth, and trot back to bed. But one day we might answer a situation with a new decision that leads to the unexpected, uncomfortable, exciting possibility of change.

What if I quit my job and work for myself? What if instead of boarding my flight to the Midwest I switch my ticket to Asia? What if I step on stage and tell that story, sing that song, dance that dance that I never dared before? 

That’s what happens in stories, the “What if?”

We’re each living our own stories, the questions similar to those we ask when we write fiction: just who is running this show? God? Fate? Chaos? Me? I prefer to imagine a dance of all the above, which implies both greater meaning and personal agency. But, in the end, none of that changes the way I choose to tell my story: something happens, I make a choice, which affects the next thing that happens, which is also affected by other people’s choices. Then I make the next choice.

Sometimes I make choices so quickly I’m not fully conscious of them. Yet somehow, between my choices and the events that unfold in response, life takes shape. The bolder my choices, the more engaging my life. The same is true of my characters and their lives. 

What if we trusted that process, allowing our characters’ lives to unfold without wondering who was in charge? What if our fingers just kept moving words across the page and we watched to see what lives those words conjured? What if we trusted in the act of opening ourselves to the possibility that in a story anybody might do anything at any time, expected or unexpected?

I say we let our characters do what they want, and trust that it also happens to be what we want them to do, whether we’re aware of it or not. I say we trust that our characters and ourselves are all in this together.

Cara Lopez Lee is the author of the memoir They Only Eat Their Husbands. Her stories have appeared in such publications as The Los Angeles Times, Denver Post, Connotation PressRivet Journal, and Pangyrus. She’s a book editor and writing coach. She was a faculty member at Lighthouse Writers Workshop, a journalist in Alaska and North Carolina, and a writer for HGTV and Food Network. An avid traveler, she has explored twenty countries and most of the fifty United States. She and her husband live in Ventura, California.


  1. As an editor, I have received calls from authors who excitedly related how they sat down to write, and suddenly they had a finished scene that wasn't at all what they had expected or even considered. One or more characters had confiscated the keyboard and typed their own story from their own perspective. One writer in particular then tells me the scene is better (and so different) than she ever had imagined it could be. This supports your conclusion that writers and characters share cranial space in the writers' heads -- and that characters should be allowed to tell their own stories. Does this also suggest that writers may have split personalities? Could be. :-)

  2. Happens to me too, Linda. :) We might never know where this magic comes from, but I believe the only way it shows up is if I show up and do the hard work. I don't wait for it to appear, but sit down and start writing something, anything. If the voices show up today, great. If not, maybe tomorrow. And I don't question why they appear. I just accept the gift gratefully.

  3. Hi Cara! I agree -- it I try to exert too much control over my story and give the characters no input, my story loses its zip. There must be a balance with the author making the final decision. And that pesky editor, of course.

  4. Right, Patricia, that pesky editor. We're always counting on them to understand our characters, but they can't get in the characters' heads. Reminds me how every reader's perceptions changes the story too.

  5. Wonderful post and comments. I do agree that we are all part of the collective consciousness that feeds creativity in many forms.

    And I agree with Linda that when we let the characters take some of the control of the writing, the scenes are often better for it.

    1. Hear, hear, Maryann. And I like that you used Émile Durkheim's "collective consciousness" rather than Jung's "collective unconscious." Both can apply to creative thought, but somehow "unconscious" always suggests to me that we're knocked out cold. ;)

  6. Wonderful post and comments. I do agree that we are all part of the collective consciousness that feeds creativity in many forms.

    And I agree with Linda that when we let the characters take some of the control of the writing, the scenes are often better for it.

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  8. Great post, Cara. I've always said that I become my characters, no different than if I were an actress/actor playing the roles. Most of the time I have no idea where I'm going, but my characters do. I love it because there's always a revelation.

  9. I like the way you put it, Polly. I too sometimes feel myself becoming my characters, at least while I'm immersed in the writing. This can be kind of creepy when I'm writing an especially cruel or seedy antagonist, but it sure is fascinating.

  10. Great post. I have also had characters absolutely ignore my instructions, go off and do their own thing, and it results in a better story! In a historical romance story I wrote, the villain was supposed to seduce the heroine and blacken her name. Well, he refused point blank, the story turned out much better, and he got loads of fans asking if he was going to get his happy ever after in another book...


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