I’ve often heard the phrase repeated that characters build plots when it comes to the art of fiction writing. It’s one of those phrases that I don’t believe you can truly understand until you find yourself following your own characters journey almost as though you were the reader and not the writer.
There comes a point when your characters seem to lift themselves from the page and start to dictate their own way in life, where your plot line takes an unexpected turn or your characters react in a way that you never predicted or planned.
This can only happen of course if your characters have enough depth and you yourself as the writer have a good level of empathy with them as living, breathing entities. It is a sure sign then, that when you do find yourself being surprised by the latest change of direction in a scene or that you end a chapter in an entirely different place to where you intended, that you have indeed achieved enough depth and understanding of their character that they are able to take on that life of their own.
It can of course be a double edged sword on occasion as you may need to rein them in at times in order to avoid wandering too far off in the wrong direction. One of the biggest benefits I have found to having strongly formed characters is that in those darkest of hours that every writer experiences, when plot lines just seem to become bogged down or are simply not flowing as hoped, sometimes you can just put your faith in your characters and let them lead the way.
It may not always work perfectly, you may need to go back and rewrite at times once you’ve advanced further into your story, but in those difficult periods it can be the equivalent of hooking up a tractor and dragging your hopelessly stuck 2-wheel drive car out of the mud and back onto the road.
So pay attention to your characters, invest in them, take care of them…because you never know when you’ll need to call on them for help!