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John Howard Reid

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by John Howard Reid   
Rated "G" by the Author.
Last edited: Saturday, February 27, 2010
Posted: Saturday, February 27, 2010

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Have you ever had the experience when your characters unexpectedly took control of what you were writing. I hope so!


Characters Taking Control? What To Do?


"Don’t let them!" is the conventional answer to this perennial problem. If you’ve never been faced with this situation, you are either a very fortunate writer, or, like the rest of us, have simply been unaware that your creative kingship has been overthrown.

I, for one, have a whole suitcase full of unfinished MSS which ran off the rails when my characters asserted themselves and took control of the action. Often, they did this with such subtlety that it was weeks or even months before I discovered they had written me into an impossible dead end from which there was no means of escape.

The only thing I can do – when I have lots of time on my hands – is to go through the manuscript carefully and pinpoint the exact moment when I unconsciously ceded control

So what we have here is a common problem that will undoubtedly face all writers at some time or another – even though we may be unaware of it. So how did other major writers cope?

Robert Louis Stevenson tells us that when he was writing "Treasure Island", the characters rebeled. They saw themselves as actors on a stage playing at the roles of Jim Hawkins, Long John Silver, etc. Such a conception, of course, would have fatally undermined the impact of the book. So what did Stevenson do? Pen in hand, he took hold of a blank sheet of paper and let the "actors" have their say. When they were quite finished, Stevenson simply discarded what he’d just written and resumed work on the novel.

Charles Dickens took an opposite approach. In fact, Charlie didn’t mind at all when Mrs Gamp suddenly took control of "Martin Chuzzlewit". Sales of the monthly installments were really limping and poor old Charlie was staring the Poor House in the door, when suddenly Mrs Gamp came along, kicked both Charlie and Chuzzlewit off the book and sales shot up to the stratosphere. Of course the novel was totally ruined as a result, as Charlie himself readily admitted as he rejoicingly went on his way to the bank.

So, you usually can't have it both ways. Or can you? Actually, I'm always flattered when characters come alive and write their own dialogue and do their own thing. The problem is, as said above, that they rarely regard the structure of a book as a whole.

Last night, Merryll Manning, decided to snap loose and write his own dialogue for an important scene in “Merryll Manning: The Beachfront Murders". Fortunately, I’d already written this particularly episode, and I was very tired. It was way past 10 p.m. So I allowed Manning to re-play the scene his way.

Would you believe that on reading what Mr Manning wrote this morning with an unjealous and unjaundiced eye, I far preferred his version of events to my somehat lame and labored offering?

What Manning wrote was vivid, imaginative, right in character, and more importantly, added a brick to the book's overall structure.

So the conventional advice to ruthlessly and instantly stamp out even the slightest inclinatioins towards self-rule by your characters, is not neccesarily the best course of action after all! Sometimes they know themselves rather well.


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