The Problem with Puppet Characters

Let’s just admit it: writers are megalomaniacs. It’s okay, we deserve to be. At least in our own worlds. We control everything that happens within the pages of our stories, from the last breath of a character to the turning of the stars. It feels good to have control over a whole world and every soul in it.

But sometimes we micromanage a little too much.

I have spent so many years trying to figure out how to keep a story interesting, not only in cadence but in plot. Again and again I found myself mired in a storyline knot, unable to break free in the way I’d planned. I’d build the world, focusing on every detail I could imagine from topography to history to social cues. I’d build the plot, knowing every step toward its pre-planned end and why each step mattered. I’d create my characters and give them every personality trait and flaw they needed. My world and characters were SO 3-D in the planning stage. Then I’d start to write… and it would  all go 2-D. Flat. Shallow. Lacking realism, depth, or empathy.

Then I met Squire Carroll and everything changed.

Squire is the heroine of Bight, my first Young Adult novel. At first I made her like all my other characters — molded to fit the plot. She needed to be weak so she could learn to be strong. She needed to be simplistic so she could resonate with every reader. She needed to be ignorant so she could learn to… learn.

In essence, she needed to be a puppet whose strings I could pull to my ends. There was only one problem: nobody empathizes with a puppet.

I began Blight the same as always, focusing on the concept I’d built it on instead of the story it could be. My concept was a society built on religious persecution based in past-lives. Squire was a child of the persecuted, so she would naturally be meek and ignorant. Chapter 1 was written, and it worked just fine. Chapter 2 delved more into the world around Squire… and she was buried in it. I realized then, as I searched for her in the rubble, that I’d made the same mistake I’d made a million times before: I’d turned my character into a puppet.

How could Squire shine as a heroine for all if she was a puppet to anyone, even me?

Think about all the characters you have ever loved. What do they all have in common?

Individuality.

None of them conformed to any of the rules of their worlds. Now imagine being the writer of those worlds. The one who created those rules. Most of us would want everyone to follow the rules we created, even if we told ourselves we didn’t. The rules are there for a reason. They’re there to keep things focused and logical. They’re there to keep the storyline exact. Think about your worlds and their rules. They’re important! Right? You’ve worked on them for months!

But they’re meant to be broken. And the one who should break them — who has to break them — is our hero.

When I realized this, finally, after two and a half decades of writing, I knew what I had to do. It was terrifying, but I had to do it.

I had to let the real Squire loose in her world.

So I let go. I allowed her personality to shine, and I learned that she’s so much stronger than I thought. So much smarter. And so much more… sarcastic. But that’s okay. She’s Squire Carroll, not Jessica Rising. She grew up in a different world than me, and she  knows that world better than I do, even if I created it.

How do you let a character you created free in a world you created? Just write what they say in your mind, ignoring the voices that tell you they’re being too knowledgeable too early, too sarcastic and cynical, too… non-hero-like according to your own perceptions. Ignore those voices, and their true voice will sing through them to tell their story.

A story not unlike yours, but so much more.

Let your character tell their story. They might take it somewhere you never dreamed, but hang on for the ride. Don’t reign them in. They’re the ones who are living it. They’re the ones your readers will follow. It’s their story, not yours. The sooner you realize you’re just taking notation for your hero, the sooner your story will become a whole world of its own, where everyone feels welcome.

2 Responses to “The Problem with Puppet Characters”

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