Do you write it, or does it write you?

Hi, all...I have a question for all authors out there, sparked by one of the questions for this section ("Characters getting uppity?"). Do you feel like you're driving the story as you write it (that is, setting up situations for the characters and directing them to do what the plot calls for), or are you simply chronicling your character's adventures?

The reason I ask is that my experience has changed over the years. I remember when I was a young writer that I decided exactly how the plot of the story would go, and I made my characters do what I thought the story called for, whether or not they seemed to like it. The problem with this approach seemed to be that my stories wouldn't always work out...despite my carefully crafted plots and things I was determined to have happen at various times and places, it sometimes seemed that I'd written myself into a corner; my ideas seemed to dry up and I couldn't get more as to what the characters should do next. That didn't always happen, though, so I kept soldiering on in that fashion.

I spent some years away from writing, for several reasons, and I find that now that I've picked it up as a bit of an older person that my experience is radically different. I feel a lot more like I'm just reporting, like William Burroughs puts it in Naked Lunch. I feel like I'm 'tuning in' to my characters, and I find I'll run through the next scenarios in my story several times in my mind as the day goes by, watching what the characters do, and then when I sit down to write later, that's what I put down, unless 'they' come up with any better ideas as I write. Has anyone else out there had this experience?


Super: Sci-fi/suspense/superheroes

Diggory Franklin was supposed to be a simple character study where a self-centred lawyer was going to be conned into becoming generous because a woman loved him and her twin sister convinced him she was that woman from the future and he would die in a year, giving him motivation to change fast.

Then Zebediah showed up, blew up a building, and actual time travel occurred. The second twin was creating the situation where it would be invented, while her sister really fell in love. So the only person who got conned was the author, who has been stuck writing their adventures for four years when he never intended it last past book one.

Great question.

The story writes me. I consider the setting to be the game board, the characters to be the pieces. They move as they will, and the story writes itself.

That isn't to say I don't have ideas in mind, or that I don't hope for certain scenes to come about. I know how a given scene is liable to start, I know how it ends, and it writes itself from A to B. If I happen to get derailed by a stroke of inspiration, then I consider it a good thing and I run with it.

I write it. I describe myself as a "Literary Calvist" because my characters are predestined to obey my every whim.

I think what's actually driving my stories is the reader part of my mind -- the part that gets excited or bored. It's like a spoiled little princess that has to be kept happy, and the rest of my brain is the pack of servants who run around coming up with things to please it.

This can sometimes seem like the story is writing itself, but it's really the princess writing the story.


I've never had the full bore thing so many friends do of characters talking back to me. But as I play out scenes, things will change back and forth, andlines will change as it leaves my fingers...

I tend to write with a very general outline, often with key scenes in my head that I develop toward.

That said, at the very same time, I also tend to set up the initial situation for the main character(s), and have no plan for how to get to these key scenes. Sometimes this means the scene in question won't happen. More often it means it will happen, but not quite as I imagined it earlier.

Basically, I imagine the initial situation, and let the characters do what I think they would do while also setting things up to push them in the direction of certain key scenes.

It is, oddly enough, pretty much exactly as I run role-playing games. As the game master, I'd set up initial situations (and antagonists) that push people (in games, these would be actual, breathing people and the characters they play) in a certain direction. I'm not much of a believer in "railroading" which means pushing characters in a particular direction whether they want to or not (by closing off their options whether or not closing the option is realistic). As a result, games (and novels) seldom go quite as planned.

I don't regard this as a big problem, and assume that running role-playing games is good training for writing. I could be wrong though...

It is, alas, not great training for editing as improvised role-playing games are more like playing jazz than editing a novel.

I had a similar experience, Jim, in that running roleplaying games made me a better writer. Mostly because RPGs exercise the parts of writing I find least intuitive, plotting and action. The rest of it I was already okay with, but learning how to seat-of-the-pants a campaign from beginning to end and have it be both a good (and coherent) story that was also exciting for the players? That was fantastic exercise.

Thanks so much for all the responses...this is a question I've been thinking about a lot lately, and it really helps to see how other authors experience this.

@Gavin and Wildbow - Thank you! I'm glad to know I'm not the only one who feels like I'm on a bit of a roller coaster ride I'm not controlling. It was weird at first, since I hadn't experienced anything close to it before, but now it makes me feel good, as if what I write has life. I figure if it has life for me, hopefully it will for others.

@Ubersoft - I love the idea of the "Literary Calvinist." I really used to have a "captain of the ship" mentality about my own writing, too, and I know this works well for some authors, because I can recall a number of interviews where authors have talked about their writing that way. Unfortunately, it seems like maybe it's not for me, though.

@DaringNovelist - I can't help but giggle at your spoiled princess there, running the show. I have this mental image of servants showing her bolts of silk or various expensive toys and she turns her nose up until someone walks by with a cardboard box to discard, and that's the thing she wants to play with. XD

@Alexander.Hollins - I don't know that I can say I hear voices (at least I wouldn't admit to it for fear of being locked up), but I do have these...sensations. Like when I'm mentally going through one of the scenarios in my story that I've planned, I've had the sensation of a character essentially negating what I was thinking by doing something else entirely, almost like they've said, "I'd never do that, can't you see? I'm going to do this instead." From what you say, it seems like you experience at least something like that.

@Jim Zoetewey - Your writing process sounds quite similar to the one I've evolved over time. I write a very general outline of each story arc down...the next one I'm working on I wrote on a small notebook page. I'm not quite halfway through writing the arc and already I've deviated from what I originally thought, and some things I'd not thought about in the outline have made their way into the story. As far as setting up situations, I guess that's what I did early in the story, but it's gotten to the point where decisions the characters have made earlier in the story are having repercussions later on, and that's what's begun to drive the situation setups...which, frankly, can be kind of scary sometimes, depending on who the characters are up against.

@Jim and M.C.A. Hogarth - I loved the mention of roleplay gaming, because sometimes that's what I feel like I'm doing. It doesn't seem that different, sometimes, from the games I've run, because I feel like I'll talk about what's happening and then hold my breath as I see how the characters I've been writing choose to respond to it. I have hopes about what they'll do, based on what I'd like to see happen and what I know about them, but I don't feel like I can railroad them (thanks, Jim) into making one decision or another without having them give me the silent treatment.


Super: Sci-fi/suspense/superheroes

On the topic of roleplaying games, I can chime in on the count of having some experience in D&D. I like to think I'm a very strong DM, getting a lot of feedback from players who say it's their favorite campaign ever. I'm also a very unlucky DM - either something falls apart in real life or the players can't keep gaming for whatever reason. It's chronic & prevalent enough that I've stopped trying.

I miss gaming! But I haven't really had the time since my daughter was born. Maybe when she's a bit older. :)

M.C.A. Hogarth: Me too. Oddly enough, what really killed my time for running rpg's was writing. It seems to have sucked up the time I'd ordinarily use to come up with ideas for campaigns. That, and kids. And the fact that the people I generally game with have kids...

As for gaming... I think it helped me write better. If nothing else, I learned pacing and when to cut a scene. When I was running games for a group of 8+ players (who would often scatter), it became a necessity.

Plus, I also learned how to dispense information. There's information that you want players to know, and information you want to slip in, but not be in the forefront of people's minds. In games, people tend to use or talk about information if they've got it. Getting a good sense of how to pass things along has really helped me, I think.

Wildbow: My games have often lasted years with more or less the same group of players. That was easier in the past than at present. The last campaign I ran ended largely due to difficulty in getting people together at the same time.

Palladian: It'd be interesting to know what a person's writing process says about their personality, or if personality is even the most important piece of it. I'm sure that for me, I'm just so used to improvising a plot that it never occurred to me to do it differently in writing than in gaming.

One of my favorite games had me at the helm with eighteen players, running it online with three competing groups of six. You learn a lot about managing story threads that way. It died too soon, and I admit a little part of that was me taking on too much at once.

I was infamous for subverting the GM voice entirely and forcing the players to rely on NPCs; I usually gave up GMing in favor of running a few permanent NPC party-members who knew what was going on/the terrain/history and then made the players interrogate them for information. Which they may or may not really care to divulge depending on circumstances and personality. I would say, "So you're at the campfire. What are you talking about?" and force them to have actual conversations with each other and me in character.

I was mean. >.<

It was fun! >.>

But yeah, I rarely used much third person omniscient narration in games. Making the dialogue carry the useful information was more fun for me. :)

Palladin, I get like that sometimes when I try to stick to my daily goals despite extreme fatigue from LIFE. Things changed for me a bit when I stopped writing when I was sapped for energy. :P

If I feel sort of dull about a story, I tend to shelve it until I find out what I'm trying to express with it. Sometimes when the chapter is exciting despite being sort of vague, I still leave it because the sense of mystery gives the reader something to mull over IMO, just like it gave me something to ponder, giving the story life outside of the paragraph. I like building places, situations, and emotions and handing the keys to the reader. I try to invite them to play with my toys, so to speak. I don't think this makes for very bankable writing, but it is fun. For me, anyway! :D

Man, the last face-to-face gaming group I had for any appreciable duration was in 2003 or 2004, but it was a poor fit. The last one that was brilliant was a few years before, when I still lived in Raleigh. I played a thief. His personally was pretty solidly transferred to Grif Vindh in PMB!

However, I was on a very good Neverwinter Nights server for a few years. *That* character's personally was pretty solidly transferred to a serial no one has seen yet.

I do that too, Uber, moving characters out of RPGs and into Real Fiction. Reese from Earthrise was a failed Trinity character!

Nick, the main character of Legion of Nothing, his parents, and grandfather all came out of the background of a never played Villains & Vigilantes character. Some of the supporting cast (Larry, and Jaclyn's grandfather) appeared as NPC's in a campaign I actually ran.

It's funny that so many of us here have done something similar.

Oh, and I don't know why I overlooked it, but in Curveball, CB and many of the characters therein are based on an old Champions campaign. Chris Avellone (Planescape: Torment, Fallout 2, Fallout: New Vegas) was our DM. Ah, high school.