Who the Bloody %$#@ Are You?

Unsuspected Knowledge
Pam Uphoff

“I started writing . . . and there it was . . . ”

The subconscious mind is a fascinating things, of which I know virtually nothing. But I have come to trust it, err, myself, err, whatever. I have trained myself (with much backsliding) to turn the fingers and keyboard over to, well, that otherwise uncommunicative part of myself.

I’ve decided it’s in many ways like a computer. It’s got no personality, it doesn’t do anything unless I tell it to—and then often cacks up—but it runs all sorts of odd things in the background while I’m otherwise engaged.

But then I realize it doesn’t have _a_ personality, it’s got dozens, hundreds. Could well be up to thousands, by now. They’re all in there. All the Characters I’ve ever daydreamed or written. I may sit down and consciously, logically make a list: He’s 19, black hair, blue eyes, medium height and still growing, fit, but not a weightlifter. Comes from the lower classes, but he’s ambitious. He’s transferred from the local college to the big university . . .

And suddenly it’s the first day . . . he’s walking into his assigned dorm building, luggage in hand, and there’s a dozen seniors hanging around, ready to put any newcomers in their place. The whole scene just rolls out of the finger tips, all as seen by the character.

[Wait, I wasn’t planning on a hazing . . .]

There’s another new student right behind him. Snotty and rude to the hazers. He starts the fight, the MC jumps into help . . .

[Wait, that’s the MC from that short story. He can’t be the _sidekick_!]

A commanding voice breaks up the fight. It comes from an elderly professor, but the bully boys are instantly cowed.

[Where did he come from?]

He has insecurities . . .

[What? He’s cocky and ambitious! I should know, I planned it that way!]

. . . and he has to work hard to keep the grades up, kicks ass in the martial arts sorting. . .

[The what? Did you invet a whole alien university while I wasn’t looking?]

Winds up in remedial firearms, having never fired a gun in his life.

[Where is all this coming from? That wasn’t in the brief!]

And then he falls in love with the President’s daughter.

[No, no, no! Stop. I am quite certain she was in love with the other guy and you . . . figment of my subconscious, are going to . . . fall for the girl who’s kissing the other guy? All right. Fine. But you’d better be prepared for the scandal!]

Being affronted and ambushed by my subconscious is one of the best parts of writing. Or maybe the worst. Really, it wouldn’t be so bad, if only “Subconscious I” weren’t a better writer than “Conscious I” am. And didn’t have a better understanding of characterization.
I consciously hate that subconscious bastard.

So, tell us about the last time a character hijacked your story?

25 thoughts on “Who the Bloody %$#@ Are You?

  1. I recall once when an investigator was trying to understand a crew and their loyalty to their captain. She was interviewing a senior non-commissioned officer. This woman had served with the captain as long as anyone, and was stubbornly loyal. The investigator asked the non-comm the obvious question: was she (the non-comm) in love with the captain. The non-comm laughed and said, “He’s not my type.” The investigator asked why not. And before I knew what was happening, the non-comm answered, “He’s not my type, because you are.” That was entirely news to me.

    Half a page later, I was surprised again when the investigator reciprocated the interest.

  2. I love it when my characters hijack things, provided they don’t hijack them so completely we never actually get back to the core of the story and things fall apart.

    Thing is, when your characters hijack a story to head in their own direction for a little while, that’s the point where things really start to feel organic. We’ve all read a story at some point or another where a character or two did things that didn’t make sense to their character, but “because the plot needed them too.” Encountering a story where the plot and the characters are in sync is a great discovery, because often even if they make a choice we wouldn’t, they’re still making a choice we understand and is consistent with their character.

    Let’s see … the last time a character hijacked a story of mine? Last week, I think. I had a character in a “short” story I wrote for a collection, a teenage kid who starts to discover that he’s an “unusual,” a magic user who can set things aflame with his powers, who took the story in really interesting places simply by who he decided to talk to and what he decided to do with it. No aspirations of revenge on those who’d wronged him, just teenage worry that his abilities would make his life worse than it already was. To be fair, I wasn’t 100% certain where his character would take the story to start with, but some of his panicked reactions and then reactions to those reactions were … interesting, to say the least.

    Come to think of it, I had quite a few surprises in the two stories I’ve finished since then, too. I guess those aligned more closely with what I had planned, however, so it wasn’t as big a surprise.

  3. It happens regularly… it’s part of why I tend to pants rather than plot. (Or my ‘first draft’ is really a 50k outline in long form prose. Which ever way you look at it.)

    Most recently it’s been in how a story needs to be told. The novel I’ve been trying to get revised for far too long finally informed me it was two (not the three it was trying to split into) and that’s before I get to the story I’d originally planned on telling. Which likely won’t get told as more than a bit part because the ‘real’ story finally showed up. I’m hoping the next round isn’t this messy.

    The last actual character to do this to me in a major way was a certain irritating elf. He made me draw him (I was sitting a booth at a steam punk convention. Have sketch pad will elf.) then weaseled his way into a world that had nothing at all to do with him.

    Most of my characters I have set in my head vaguely and they solidify as I go so other than character X’s father turning out to be a more sadistic bastard than I anticipated, or the King’s Sister (who is and isn’t as dead as everyone thought she was) is the actual villain not the greasy noble (‘oozing charm from every pore he oiled his way across the floor’ you know the type) these are things I anticipate happening as I write.

  4. She didn’t exactly hijack the main story – but she was a very able and commanding person – the older sister of the ostensible hero, who was only supposed to come in for a couple of chapters … and by dint of effort I did keep her from taking very much more of a part than she did … but when I had done with the trilogy, I had to give her two full books of her own, just to keep her quiet and mollified. Because off-stage, and while her little brother the hero was off having all adventury kinds of things – she was doing all sorts of things that he never realized in the least.

  5. Rudolph von Habsburg, last fall? Spring? (They are blurring together). He was supposed to be a very minor character, loosely based on Archduke Johann von Habsburg (Franz Josef’s scandalous uncle, for certain very mild definitions of scandal), because every generation seemed to have the Odd archduke or archduchess. Oh no, he morphed into something far more interesting and powerful, and ended up changing my understanding of how those Houses aligned with Powers function. And got himself a solo short story.

    Before that it was Lazlo Destefani, Sgt. Anthony “Tony” Lee, and Joschka von Hohen-Drachenburg. Oh, yeah, and I was the next to last to know that Duke Aquila von Starland was bisexual. My subconscious is a [word not appropriate for this blog]

    1. I liked that short story. What’s the novel with him? If it’s one of the Coplatch-whosis chronicles I’ll eventually find it, but I’d like to know and maybe skip to it.

  6. Not so much a character in the story as a character that another character was playing in the story. No, I’m not trying to be meta: one of the characters in my story was an up-and-coming (at that point in the plot) Hollywood actress, and that section of the story dealt with her filming what would become her breakout role. Only I enjoyed that character and story so much that I wound up over-inserting them into the main story, with the end result being the subplot (actually a sub-subplot) dragged the novel’s pacing down to a pathetically slow crawl.

    And then there was a time that I loved the character (modern Cinderella archetype, don’t judge) so much that I re-wrote the story so I wouldn’t have to kill her off, which pretty much destroyed the story since her death was supposed to drive the hero to avenge her and discover her true identity in the process. So, yeah, that pretty much killed that book.

    1. I sat on a book for more than a decade (which was actually a good thing, since that was my teenage years and I actually learned a lot about writing during that time period) until I realized that a character that I had thrown unjustly into prison had to die, and therefore he had to be guilty. And then the book was finished within a year, from conception to completion. May the next one go as smoothly, though please let it be faster.

      1. Problem was I’d already written the first draft when I decided to un-kill her. She wound up spending the story in a coma, in a hospital, totally unprotected, where the hitman who was still at large could have easily walked in and finished her.

        That said… I like your idea. Mind if I steal it for a future Charlie Rasczak story?

        1. No prob, Cinderella’s not my idea. Err, I suppose a glass slipper would be a bit over the top, wouldn’t it? But the search for her, and discovering her true identity . . . must be there.

  7. I was noodling along writing a new story about a 12 year old boy when I realized it was really about a character who was supposed to be his sidekick. Now it’s morphed into joint protagonists, but by the end of the month it may well be about her. I take it as it comes, and if the words start pouring out suddenly, I’ll know my subconscious has finally settled on whatever version I am then writing. This is the fun part about writing.

  8. One throwaway line about an ambassador and suddenly I’m not only saddled with a character but an entire country. Definite ambush. I like him a lot, though I wouldn’t trust him.

  9. I’m in the middle of a character-jacking right now. A minor character who was supposed to die suddenly refuses to be sacrificed and insists on playing a major role in the story. Damn it.

  10. Several characters in _Last Moondance on Farside_. The protagonist was supposed to be socially isolated, and all of a sudden her office-mate turns into a friend, and introduces her to his circle of friends, including several who become champions for her and totally change the dynamic of the novel. Now I just need to get a few difficult parts finished and get it done, while I’m struggling with another book I want to get finished by a specific time.

  11. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, the process goes way deep.

    I’m almost exclusively a pantser; in fact, it wasn’t until I learned to trust my subconscious completely that I could actually finish a novel. Overthinking kills, and I’m a champion overthinker. My work needs editing, but if I let it flow without thinking too much about the first draft, I generally get what I want.

    My best example of a character hijacking a story is in the novel I just posted to KDP Select last week. In The Cunning Blood an impetuous young pilot is framed for murder, and sent to Earth’s supposedly escape-proof prison planet 27 light years away. While waiting to be shipped out, Peter befriends his cellmate, a middle-aged statistician also bound for the prison planet. The statistician was intended to be an articulate sounding board for Peter; they had a significant conversation in prison as a way of fleshing out Peter’s views on his situation, after which I didn’t expect him to appear in the story again.

    Silly me. Jamie grew in several dimensions, and by the last quarter of the novel he had become one of the story’s pivotal characters, if not the pivotal character.

    This wasn’t by intent. I pants my way through a plot on a very short horizon: Sometimes I’m not even sure what turns the plot will take until a few hundred words before I write them. This was one of those times. My subconscious apparently knew that I needed an ethical, iron-willed thinker to fill a slot, and when I created a character without giving him much of a personality (because he didn’t need one for the role I had originally given him) my subconscious decided that Jamie was The One, and took him over.

    This has been the way I’ve written for a long time, and I’m used to it by now. The lesson is simple: Trust your subconscious. Narratives are what it evolved to do. Give it sufficient raw material, and it will tell a story for you, one that will (most of the time) be something you can flesh out, clean up, and sell.

  12. The closest I’ve come to a character going off on his or her own is when they need to be something other than I imagined to make things work.

    The closest I’ve come to a character coming up with stuff on his or her own was “interviews” with each to flesh them out. The villain from book one was dead, which removed him from the constrains of the novel, with the result that he was a Hannibal Lector sort, sans cannibalism. Very nasty, and the scary thing was he could almost convince you he was the victim.

  13. Heck, in my recently published short story (I’ll try to make sure Sarah includes that anthology in the next promo post) one of the two main characters was someone who didn’t even appear in the original conception of the story. They just appeared near the end and I was forced to work them into to rest of the story because they gave it the emotional punch I needed.

  14. Shy but loyal lurker here, but I love the topic of this post. I love it when a character comes to life all on their own.

    Lainie, the heroine of my Daughter of the Wildings series, was supposed to just be the hero Silas’s love interest back in the first draft of book 1 (which was also supposed to be a stand-alone, I had no idea at first that it would turn into a series). As I drafted the other books in the series, she became more and more important until she became the main character (the “Daughter” of the title) along with Silas. I was glad I wrote the whole series in draft before releasing any of it, because the earlier books needed a lot of changes to match up with the rest of it and Lainie’s eventual role.

    Another of my novels, The Lost Book of Anggird, I struggled with for years and just couldn’t get it to come together. I dropped it for a while, but the characters wouldn’t leave me alone. Then one night a seduction scene between the hero and heroine came to my mind, much earlier in the book than I’d planned it and much different. I looked more closely at the hero’s reactions during the scene, and that was when he opened up to me and told me all about his horrifying past and the kind of man he was to have overcome it and why he lived his life the way he did now. I was floored, I’d had no idea at all about any of that, but once I understood who he was and where he was coming from, the whole book just fell into place.

  15. I never know what happens next, and if I do, I stop writing. This is apparently because I started writing to entertain myself, so once I know the story it’s time for another.
    Or something.
    At the moment I’m trying my hand at a straight-up Romance. I know how it has to end. I know the shape of the plot. (This being a given in Romance, after all.) But I have no idea what the next obstacle is.
    Because if I’m ever to really be an author, instead of someone with too many part-written stories, I’m going to have to get over this habit of stopping if/when the rest of the story unfolds.
    So, 12,000-odd words and still going strong, and I know how it has to end. (And it’s missing pretty much all the description, another really bad habit of mine, so it’s probably half again as much of the book-plot as implied by the word-count.) So I’m proud of myself, or at least self-satisfied.

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