You & Your Character: Who Holds the Reins?

Discussion questions: Do you sometimes look at your characters as entities outside of your control, or do your characters never do or say anything you haven’t given strict permission for? Do you control your characters, do your characters control you, or do you and your characters operate together?


Today I was talking through a short story with a client, Charity Marie, during one of our regular coaching sessions. Charity’s story ends in an unpredictable and violent way, and as we chatted about this, she said, “I didn’t know the story would end that way.”

Happens often enough, right? Even if we write from an outline, a story can spin off in a direction of its own.

But then Charity said something that really caught my ear. Talking about her protagonist, and the action she takes at the end, Charity said, “She really surprised me by doing that.”


I know a lot of writers who talk as if their characters operate on their own, making decisions separately from the writer. Almost like the writer is merely an observer, typing out the actions of real people as they happen.

For some writers, a character won’t have a thought or take an action that isn’t already tightly planned. Others are more willing to loosen the reins a bit and follow their whims. Which, in some cases, means ceding some measure of control to their characters.


There’s no right or wrong; like (almost) always, it’s a case of following whatever approach works best for you. But I was curious about what Charity said, and I wanted to throw it out to the group.

Do you sometimes look at your characters as entities outside of your control, making decisions and taking actions separately from you? Are you ever surprised by your characters?

Or do your characters never do or say anything without your own forethought and your strict permission?

Do you control your characters, or do your characters control you? Or do you and your characters operate together?

Let’s talk about it below.


WriteByNight co-founder David Duhr is fiction editor at the Texas Observer and co-host of the Yak Babies podcast, and has written about books for the Dallas Morning News, Electric Literature, Publishing Perspectives, and others.

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