Should I Let My Characters Write Their Own Ending?

Who says exercise is useless? I may not be losing any weight but my brain is definitely benefiting. During my swim this morning I had a brilliant idea for a subplot in my WIP. The new story line slid easily into place, with all the attendant connections and foreshadowing (was I dreaming? This doesn’t usually happen to me) and I couldn’t wait to get out of the pool and make some notes (my memory isn’t to be relied upon these days). This is doubly important because the novel has recently hit the buffers. It’ll mean a bit of rewriting, but it’s so worth it. But I digress…

I’ve previously written about the end point – whether to plan the ending of your novel and work towards it, or leave it to the whim of your characters – and I’ve found quotes from experienced writers on both sides of the argument. You can read my previous comments here. I made my decision, and in the last few months, following my own advice, I’ve been trying to work towards a known ending. But it’s just not working.

Let’s back up a minute. My novel was in the doldrums; I’d gone so far but couldn’t progress. Paddling about in the shallows; tweaking here and there and getting precisely nowhere. Until I had another look at the story line and made a major, shocking twist to the ending. It changed everything. It spurred me on and I couldn’t write fast enough to get there. For a while, anyway. Then I started to get tangled up with how to move my characters to this new conclusion, when they were making it pretty obvious they didn’t want to go.

Over the years I’ve written myself into many a corner or dead end, sometimes having to ditch hours, days, of work to get myself out of a situation that wasn’t going anywhere, so this wasn’t too much of a surprise. But this time, no matter how many times I went back and changed thoughts, feelings and events so they engaged properly with this precious new ending, the characters resisted. They just wouldn’t play ball. They wouldn’t fit willingly into the straitjacket I’d created for them.

I’ve always known my characters had lives and minds of their own; that they would go their own way regardless of what I thought, and usually I give them their head for a while, before dragging them back to the script. Kicking and screaming if needs be. But it’s never been as bad as this before.

This time they are point-blank refusing to cooperate.

In an effort to understand their reluctance I went back to my original character studies. I had thought long and hard about the main characters, given them back stories, traits and mannerisms, beliefs and opinions, and it soon became obvious where I was going wrong.

Before they’d even hit the page I’d created personas for this gang of people. I knew how they behaved, how they would react in various circumstances, how they would interact with each other, before a word had been written.

Then I proceeded to ignore everything I’d discovered.

And therein lies the problem. I was trying to force these personalities into situations they would never have contrived for themselves and would certainly not be happy in pursuing. No wonder they were reluctant, dragging their feet like recalcitrant teenagers. They weren’t just being awkward. They wouldn’t fit into this new scenario because they hadn’t been programmed to expect or accept it.

They want to earn their ending and this isn’t it.

I will have to listen to them.  


4 thoughts on “Should I Let My Characters Write Their Own Ending?

  1. It is always interesting to discover how other authors do this writing thing! Even from my first ever completed book, I started out with only the haziest notion of plot except that I was writing a contemporary ‘romance’ and knew who should end up with whom. The only other thing I knew was that the hero would be rakish and naughty, a man to be tamed in the best Georgette Heyer tradition – the only romance author I knew well.
    Would my hero, Andrew Ellis comply with this characterisation? No he would not. But in a way, that was one of the aspects of writing that first book that made the process so utterly enthralling. Character and plot came to me as I was writing, almost like I had a hotline to an already fully-formed story floating in the ethers.
    As I progress in my ‘career’ it grows less and less inevitable that this magic will happen when it’s needed, and I have to grit my teeth and plug away with unpromising ingredients for longer and longer.
    And that’s what’s what makes starting a new book so very resistible. I only ever have the scenario in which the main characters come together, their back stories and sketchy impressions of character and motivation etc. I then just have to start. Once I have an opening chapter I then write backwards almost as much as forwards as I get to know my characters more fully and yes, they slowly reveal where I’ve got them wrong, and how and where they want to get to . A slow process but ultimately – usually – a rewarding one.
    But I do sometimes wonder why I do it.

    • The rule book is well and truly out of the window, Gilli! Like you, I often wonder why I’m bothering, then there’s that flash of inspiration and everything falls into place – for a while at least – until the flaws in the masterstroke reveal themselves, usually at 3am!

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