The independent lives of your characters

[— Karen Myers —]

You know all those folks in your story/novel/series? The ones that put on a play under your direction to entertain your readers?

Well, guess what… they have their own lives, too. You can’t just deflate them and then blow them up again several chapters (or books) later, as if they hadn’t had their own experiences in the meantime, sometimes even events that change them in significant ways.

The problem with figments of your imagination is that your brain doesn’t really make much of a distinction between what you expect of real people and what you expect of fictional ones. The more static your fictional characters are and the longer the time frame, the less convincing they are as simulacra, even if they started out as perfectly well-formed archetypes. Like your co-worker who returns from vacation with a sunburn, a hangover, and a brand new wedding ring, you know he just isn’t quite the same as the last time you saw him, and you want to hear at least some of his story.

I’m working on book 3 of a not-yet-released series, so I have the luxury of really solidifying the worldbuilding before the first book goes out into the wild. I don’t myself know what’s going to happen with all these characters, not even the core contingent, especially because this is intended to be an open-ended long series. I like to “write into the dark” and be surprised by my characters’ choices, with only a key-points plot structure to keep the story’s events and rhythm well distributed in each series book.

So what am I learning this time?

I’ve never before waited to finish a third book before releasing the first ones. My choices for my earlier books in earlier series limited my choices for later entries, of course, but since I had only envisioned 4 books each for my prior two series, the events overall were fairly short-term in the story world (a year or so), and so it wasn’t so difficult to accommodate the character choices and changes in the later books as they came along.

This series is different. The 2nd-4th books will cover a year, and the 1st book is a prequel (5 years previous). But since I know this series will go on and on, my mind can’t stop fabulating into the future. So for instance… I just thought of a good opening for a later series entry — but it means that one of the earlier entries ought to notice a particular building (which I hadn’t thought about before) to provide an appropriate foundation for the later book’s opening.

Of course, the time will come when the first books are out and unmodifiable, and I’ll just have to work with that. But meanwhile that doesn’t stop the busy brain. It wants to get started on book 5, even though all it has visualized is the mid-point crisis. And I can’t afford to get distracted while working on book 3.

And then there are the core characters. There will be romances, marriages, births, deaths, disasters, and so forth. Of course there will. But there are only so many core characters you can keep track of, and ideally the life events have to stretch out over the long-term or else you start aging them in a hurry to move along a generation.

Let’s not forget the non-core but continuing characters either. Just how many names and (at least fragmentary) life stories do you think your readers can keep track of (even with a name index)? On the one hand, you don’t want to multiply these characters promiscuously, but on the other, one does keep meeting new people in real life, and running across older acquaintances. Fold these demographics in on each other how you will (introducing friends to friends), still the numbers do keep growing.

How do you keep your critters corralled? How do you group the different classes together (main characters, secondary, villains, peripherals, etc.), while keeping your story moving at a moderate pace through time, season by season?

20 thoughts on “The independent lives of your characters

  1. As a pantser I never know where things are going until they pop out on the page/screen. And I’ve never written anything continuing. So I don’t really have that issue. And my characters don’t really talk to me as fully formed individuals like they do Sarah. I have to hold them down and wrestle with them, sometimes yank out a few teeth, before they start talking usually. (This is probably because I’m a very inconsistent writer, just doing it now and then when I can’t ignore a scene swirling around in my head [I guess you could say my characters give me a swirly in order to get me back to the keyboard/pen & paper] over all the real life activities going on.)

    1. And I usually see scenes, rather than particular characters doing particular things. It’s sometimes annoying because I’m not sure if the scene should go with a character I’ve used before or someone new.

  2. What irritates me the most about all the franchises that are being “revisited”, “continued” (and milked for profit while being reskinned for new politics) is when decades have gone by, but the characters are still the same, in the same roles and doing the same things, just older.

    Which is so depressing.

      1. Besides, there’s a lot of character evolution, they just get ‘reset’ back to status quo a lot. For better and for worse. That’s different than no changes at all.

        I thought Spider Man was going in some interesting directions when he got married, then One More Day happened.

        1. And inferior. There are a lot of great stories about static characters. Fake dynamic, not so much.

          1. There are characters that are aspirational, and there are characters that grow.

            Superman doesn’t really need to change, but he got some development when he was hiding his secret from Lois, to telling her the truth and getting married.

            For Spider Man, until the modern ruination his arc was about growing up and finding maturity. We follow him from high school to college, he gets married, has a family etc. And we see Mary Jane growing as well, dealing with the fear of not knowing if her husband will come back alive from one of his missions.

            And here’s the problem, with characters like that, ultimately the stories HAVE to end. There’ll come a point where Spidey will want to hang up the webs and raise a family. I thought they went in an interesting direction in the 90s with the possibility that Scarlet Spider might take up the mantle.

            Instead, they reset him in the worst way possible, and turned him from a married man into someone with a disgusting Oedipal complex for his aunt.

            I think they did a good job with Batman with the transition to Batman Beyond.

            Xavier and Magneto…as World War II got further away, they needed to fade away into the background. Xavier should have gone off with his space princess girlfriend and helped rule the Shi’ar, and Magneto should have found a moment of redemption and then died.

            Or at the very worst case, they both should have died during Onslaught.

            Superman? The Shadow? Yes: static, unchanging and eternal.


            Well, at least manga writers know you have to end some stories.

  3. Unstatic characters are also an issue. If you make your engineer passionate about the difference between two engines solely so he infodumps in the first chapter, he can’t lose the passion when it’s not a plot device.

  4. I regret to say my characters have very busy lives off the page. Sometimes it’s useful for a story and gets down in print. And some times it just gets a throw away comment.

    But the really annoying ones are the bit characters who are supposed to walk on, do their job, then go away. Until they demand an origin story of their own and wind up being the main character’s boss . . .

  5. So far, my characters mostly corral me.

    Even the fanfic thing (which was maybe 60k words all together) at least half of it only exists because when I tried to write a different thing, a character came back with, essentially, “Nope. Not doing it until you cover that different bit I think is important. Sorry, not sorry.”

    My own universe is, somehow, even worse about that.

  6. I’m a very slow writer. I write everything in the order in which it happens and when I get to the end, I stop.

    Since I’m essentially taking dictation, I have to go back regularly and rewrite past chapters to fit new changes.

    It helps having an even slower release schedule (life got in the way) because I was able to make changes in Pearls to reflect what happens in Escape.

  7. It varies. Some characters sneak up on me and work their way into being surprise protagonists in some way, shape, or fashion. Others are supposed to be protagonists and bail out. They don’t want the responsibility. I generally have one main PoV character who is consistent, and I try to have him or her grow as a normal person in that culture would (if the story is more than one book). Or the character says, “Normal? NORMAL? Watch this!”

    Right now I’m dealing with an MC who is about to discover that if he is really sneaky, really works hard, and gets a splash of good luck, he has a whole new option in life. He should jump for the hoop and grab it. No, he wants to hesitate because, um, I’m sorting that out. There’s not going to be many Casts of Thousands™, I hope. Ish. Maybe.

    1. Ah, but doubt and trepidation before committing to a major undertaking or risky path makes a character more real. A lot of people have those decision points in their lives, one they did or didn’t take.

  8. Just revised a scene from my space opera sequel where Wajar, a supporting character from the first book showed up briefly. In Shadow Captain he kind of ducks out of the main story late in the proceeding and takes another transport off-planet, so I wanted to show anyone who might care that he had survived and was still working with the Partisans.

  9. “Well, guess what… they have their own lives, too.”

    Yes, they do. Often they are very busy doing what they want, and quite disinclined to be bothered with what I want. For days on end. 😡

  10. My characters are people, some of them do not deign to tell me their stories as it is not my business. Others… they’re there in the background. Families, origins. They do their thing and I try to keep up and go back to make sure it’s coherent when I’m done.

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