Saturday, 27 October 2012

When the Characters Take Over - Guest Post by A M Jenner

I am happy today to welcome A M Jenner to my blog to discuss the kind of time When the Characters Take Over. So, without further ado, I'll hand over to my guest. :)


Third stop on my international blog tour, Canterbury, England. Thanks so much to Sophie Duncan for hosting me; it’s good to be here.

Several years ago, I went to a presentation given by Michael Stackpole, author of I, Jedi as well as some thirty odd other New York Times best-selling novels. During the question and answer period, someone asked him what he does when he experiences writer's block. He replied that there is no such thing as "writer's block". He went on to explain that the phenomenon we commonly call writer's block is simply a case of not knowing your characters well enough.

Several times during the night, Mr. Stackpole emphasized that ‘character is king’. Once you create "living, breathing" characters, you must be willing to turn the story over to them, and let them guide the events. After all, it’s their life you’re writing about. As an author, you need to know your characters inside and out. You will know things about your characters that never get printed on the page. For example, you may know that a particular character's favorite color is green. You’ll never write, "Tom's favorite color is green." However, when you’re writing a scene in which he chooses out a tie to wear to a very important meeting, you know that he’ll choose his favorite green tie.

Often, an author has blocked out a particular story they want to tell. In order to tell that story, they invent characters. As long as they keep their characters under control, they’ll be able to write the story they have invented. The story will end with it being told the way the author wanted it to be told, but the characters' lives will suffer for it. They will finish up being two-dimensional cardboard cutouts. This is known as a plot-driven novel.

The other sort of novel is a character-driven novel. Although there is a plot, the lives and development of the characters’ personalities is much more integral to what is going on in the book. The characters in this sort of a novel will be three-dimensional, "real" people. Reading a character-driven novel is rather like spending time with a good friend.

Because I enjoy reading character-driven novels, I tend to write them as well. I begin a book with a character in mind, and a plot that consists of several goals the character needs to accomplish, and the obstacles I intend to throw in their way. However, when the characters start doing things I never planned on, I don't worry about it. I write the story down the way the characters claim that it happened. Most of the time, I can still keep the characters on track toward their primary goal, even if they don't get there by the path I had chosen before I started writing.

I almost always end with a better story when I follow the characters’ directions, than if I try to force them to do things the way I want them to do them. Sometimes, I end up writing things which are distasteful on a personal level. Some of my characters, especially the villains and their friends, are not very nice people. They do things that are not nice. I go back later, and edit out the worst of their actions, or at least the dark and dirty details while leaving enough in to let you know they are bad people.

In September 2009, I was trying to finalize the details of the plot for story called Mindtouch, which I intended to write for my 2009 NaNoWriMo novel. The more I tried to think about the necessary details for the plot, the more distracted I became. Tanella's Flight had just been published the previous April, and one of the characters from that novel, Liammial, very much wanted me to finish writing the story of his triumphant conquest. Even within the confines of my own brain, Liammial was actively pushing other characters out of the way, and demanding that I finish his story. This shows the extent of what a three-dimensional character he had become in his desire to claim the throne.

Unable to concentrate on Mindtouch, I gathered up a few ideas and rough-draft chapters which had been written, and commenced working on The Siege of Kwennjurat. I finished the rough draft four hours to go before beginning Mindtouch at midnight on November 1. Even though I was purportedly the author, as I wrote The Siege of Kwennjurat, there were quite a few surprises that the characters dealt me. I learned a lot about the underpinnings of the city of Jurisse and the danger of stalk rot.

One character I had written off as a useless idiot turned out to be a hero. Four major characters meet there and in ways I did not anticipate. As I wrote some chapters I was laughing and cheering, and as I wrote others, I was crying so hard I almost couldn't see my keyboard. I feel that one of the characters was as surprised and shocked as I was at exactly how his personal story turned out.

I knew where I wanted the book to end, and eventually it did reach the end I wanted. However, the path there was designed entirely by the characters that lived it, and bears very little resemblance to the plot I had outlined. I am entirely happy with the novel in its finished form.

I often see writers complaining online that their characters have taken over their books. I always give them the same answer. Don't fight it. Just go with it. You will have a better novel in the end.


The Siege of Kwennjurat is the second book in the Kwennjurat Chronicles. Alone in Kwenndara, Princess Tanella cares for the refugees from war-torn Jurisse, while she worries about her loved ones’ safety. Her new husband Fergan is two days away in Renthenn, coordinating the business of two kingdoms.

Kings Jameisaan and Fergasse join forces in Jurisse to pursue the war against the Black Army. They know Liammial hasn't played his last card, and are willing to give their lives to protect their people and their children.

Who will triumph and claim the throne of Kwennjurat?

A M Jenner lives in Gilbert, Arizona, with her family, a car named Babycakes, several quirky computers, and around 5,000 books. A self-professed hermit, she loves to interact with her readers online. Her books are available at, as well as most major online retailers.


  1. I wondered how you deal with characters that are ugly people. I know sometimes when I read and I say OH MY I HATE that person and I wonder how a writer can put so much into a character that I would think they dislike too. How do you put so much into an "ugly" character as a "good" one. I am the type of person that has no time for people I don't care for, I don't think I could put so much effort into a character I did not like. Thus why I am not a writer I guess :)

    1. Have no doubt, I dislike Liammial with a passion. He's a no-good, despicable, power-hungry jerk that does nothing unless it will help him reach his goal. The driving goal of his life is to be king, even though his brother is several minutes older, and he was never the heir. All of which makes him a wonderful literary villain.

      My job, as an author, is to make life difficult for the heroes of the book, so readers can feel for them and cheer for them as they overcome their obstacles. Having Liammial as a villain makes it very easy to make life tough for the heroes, because Liammial is that horrible.

      I really don't know what corner of my subconscious mind creates my characters for me, but they seem to come into my stories as people, rather than as tools. Maybe my brain just works strange, but as it's helpful to my chosen career, I'm not arguing about it!

      Even while I'm writing the book, I cheer for the heroes, and sometimes, I cry for them. I'm always happy when things work out well for them in the end.


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