Cate Hogan recently shared George Saunders’s video on How to Tell a Good Story. It reminded me of something I’ve discovered as a writer. You’ve got to set your characters free to be themselves, to write themselves, and to write the story.
The character Sissy in Hearts in the Storm is a prime example. When I began writing, I have to admit that she was a very flat character. Early on, she took on a life of her own. She became this fiery, tenacious woman who tries, sometimes unsuccessfully, to hide her tender caring side. Because of her fiery nature, her behavior is sometimes aggressive and unpredictable. A number of events in the book were not in the original outline. They were dictated by the intense person that Sissy became.
In Set You Free, my current work in progress, the character of Enos was supposed to appear only briefly in one of the early chapters. As I wrote that chapter, it became apparent to me that Enos would become an important character in the story. He has a significant mental impairment, yet he makes some of the wisest observations. His character really embodies one of the underlying themes of the book – Things aren’t always what they seem to be. Once I set Enos free to be himself, he started driving events in the book. Things turned out differently than I had planned because of him. He became an important character because he says and does important things just in being himself.
Telling a good story is really about creating interesting characters, letting them write themselves, and then letting them write the story. As an author, you must be willing to turn the storytelling over to the characters. After all, they know their story better than you do.