I Can’t Get You Out of My Head!

La, la, la, la, la, la, la la, …. No, not the Kylie song. What I’m talking about is character invasion.

Many years ago, I started subscribing to Writing Magazine. I lapped it all up but what particularly interested me were the interviews with writers, particularly when they revealed the inspiration behind their plot and/or their characters. One thing I just couldn’t get my head around, though, was when writers described their characters talking to them, taking the plot in a direction they’d never planned and/or new or minor characters suddenly bigging up their parts. “Crazy people,” I’d mutter under my breath.

Then something strange happened … I became one of those “crazy people”.

If you’ve read my story on this blog, you’ll know I’ve been working on my novel for about a decade and, whilst the premise and the protagonist have always remained the same, the story has gone through many incarnations. In one of these incarnations, I had a character called Simon. The idea was that my protagonist, Sarah, would get together with Simon but he’d turn out to be still smitten with his ex. The reader would discover that he’d been attracted to Sarah because she looked like his ex. Simon was meant to be quite a nice bloke; just on the rebound and it would all work out fine because he wasn’t the one for Sarah anyway. Only Simon didn’t like his “nice bloke” image. He wanted to be mean. Really mean. The story took an unexpected turn with poor Sarah discovering his obsession with his ex by staying at his house one night and entering the spare bedroom instead of the bathroom only to find a wall plastered with photos of the ex (imagine a stalker’s wall in a thriller or crime drama). Other possessions of the ex – perfume, toothbrush, nightshirt, teddy – were all carefully arranged like a shrine. After fleeing the house, Simon bombarded her with phone messages and texts before turning up at her place of work with a knife and sinister intentions.

Whoa, whoa, whoa! Where on earth did that personality and plot line come from?! Yes, with a rub of his hands and an evil glint in his eye, Simon had completely taken over. It was as though he had a life of his own and wanted a completely different persona and direction to what I had planned. For that, I had to punish him. He got written out of the story. A stalker with a knife wasn’t quite the angle I was going for in a lighthearted romantic comedy!

I have to confess that Simon didn’t actually “talk” to me. Not sure I’m quite into “hearing voices” territory … yet! But I did now understand what those writers meant about their characters taking over because it had just happened to me.

I once read a writer interview that fascinated me but I’m afraid I can’t remember who it was on (sorry – I know that’s useless). All I can say is it was a he and he writes thrillers. He described a novel he was once writing which involved a jaded detective driving up to a house in the middle of nowhere. It seemed deserted. He parked his car. As he got out, he noticed there was a little girl sat on a nearby wall who asked him a question. He hadn’t planned for there to be a little girl but there she was. And suddenly he realised she was far more interesting than the jaded detective. So he scrapped the book. All was not lost, though; the girl became a key character in his next novel. This really struck a chord with me.

Characters are what make a book. You need to care about the protagonist(s) to want to follow them on their journey and keep page after page turning. If your secondary characters or even very minor ones are more interesting than your main ones, perhaps theirs are the stories to tell instead, especially if you simply can’t get them out of your head. Maybe it’s time to get them onto paper instead. Simon, I haven’t forgotten you. Your day in print will come. Just not in Sarah’s story. Or the other two in the trilogy. But don’t give up hope, you crazy person you!

Oh no! I started this post by saying that characters talking to a writer may seem a little crazy and have ended it talking to my characters. Is that a white van that’s pulled up outside with men in white coats getting out?

Have your characters ever talked to you? Has a new character suddenly appeared out of nowhere and taken over? I’d love to hear about it.

Thanks for reading

Julie xx


6 thoughts on “I Can’t Get You Out of My Head!

  1. Oh Julie now I’m singing that Kylie song! That’s a brilliant post, I love it. Yes I’m the same I subscribe to writing magazine and have done ever since I decided I was going to write a decent novel. My characters do seem to take on a life of their own and I agree with you mine don’t actually talk to me but the minute I start typing they just run away with the story and take over.
    I love Simon, I think you could lend him to me to put in one of my crime novels he would fit quite nicely. In fact he would be great friends with my serial killer in The Ghost House as they both have a stalker tendencies 😉
    Good luck and I can’t wait to read your book 🙂

    Helen xx

    • Aw, thanks Helen. Yes, I think Simon may be more fitting with your genre than mine! Glad you’re there with me on the taking over the story bit. It’s all a little odd isn’t it?! Can’t wait to read your book too 🙂 xx

  2. I haven’t exactly had the ‘character talking’ experience, Julie, but one of mine just took off in a direction I didn’t expect. I had thought of Danni as a quiet, waif-like kind of girl, a bit shy, studious, needs coaxing out of her shell a bit. Then I sent her to a party and whey hey, turns out she was anything but! I say ‘was’ as she’s dead by the time the story begins but it’s still essential to the plot that I know her well so am grateful for her lead.

    I have had a character in my head for years now, ever since I met him when I was on an interview panel. He was the interviewee and strange by anyone’s standards. His (fictional) story immediately wove itself around him as innocently he sat there and by the time he’d left, without the job, naturally, he was a middle-aged single bloke who lived with his old mum above her sweet shop that had not changed in donkey’s years and sold ancient toffee and blocks of chocolate so old they had white bits in them. Oh and he had a model train layout in the loft. Not sure he’s romantic fiction material, more like someone out of a children’s book which, who knows, might, in years to come, actually get written although no plans to do that at the moment.

    Re Writing Mag, I used to subscribe too, and was over the moon when I got a ‘highly commended’ in one of their story competitions, but as I only found about a third of it truly useful I stopped paying for it and started reading it for free at our central library. If you’re tight like me, check it out, you might find your library has it too.

    Deirdre x

    • Hi Deirdre, loving the character living above the sweet shop. I have an amazing visual now of exactly what he looks like and my teeth are aching at the thought of that toffee!!!

      I have to admit, I used to read Writing Magazine religiously. Used to subscribe to Writer’s Forum too but I’m struggling for time now. I confess that I have a huge pile of about 8 unread magazines by my bed which I must get round to opening at some point. They’re both fabulous when you’re learning your craft but probably less helpful (although still interesting) when you know the ‘rules’. I do enjoy immersing myself in where and how other writers write but perhaps should just buy the odd copy or check it out in the library as you suggest. Never entered a competition. Keep thinking I just do that too. I actually planned out some ideas for each of the 2013 themes … then never got round to doing anything more than that! The joys of working full time and writing having to take the back-burner.


  3. Hi Julie, What a great post! I really enjoyed reading about Simon. He sounds too interesting to let go. Maybe he’s just looking for the right book and you’ll be writing a thriller one day! When I started thinking about characters taking over I realised that Maeve, my antagonist, is the one who’s driven my book. It’s definitely ended up somewhere darker than I’d anticipated. And yes, I do on occasion talk to my characters. Mainly to apologise for putting them through such a dreadful time! Alex x

  4. Oh no, I’m doing the Kylie song now too. Singing and head/hand movements. What a shame my bottom looks so much less attractive in gold hot pants 😉

    Great post though, Julie, and you are so right about the characters taking over and, of course, it shall be entirely their fault if my publisher of choice ultimately turns me down!

    Jo xx

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