Curb Your Characters; Or, I Take Issue with Truman Capote

An author I follow on Twitter posted the following quote and I immediately wanted to argue back:


My first thought was, “Of course you can! They’re characters you created!” My second thought was pretty much the same, but more elaborate.

There’s an image of writers as channels between the page and the land of imagination. My favorite version of this was created by Jasper Fforde for his Thursday Next series. The Well of Lost Plots is where characters, plot devices, and settings hang out before they’re put in a story. The problem with the notion of channeling writers is it’s not true; it’s a simplification of the writing process.

Characters, no matter how fully formed they seem when the author starts writing about them, spring from that author’s brain. The author can do whatever they like to that character and put whatever words they like into that character’s mouth and brain. This is why we keep running into preachy characters (I’m looking at you, Michael Crichton) or characters who aren’t plausible for a variety of reasons.

I don’t think my argument takes away from writers’ magic. Instead of some kind of writerly séance, I imagine writers’ subconsciousness as a real version of the Well of Lost Plots, where ideas, facts, memories, and thoughts swim around until the writer’s brain connects them into a coherent story. When a character starts preaching or falls flat, it’s not because the writer lost “control” of the characters. That’s not possible. It’s because the author didn’t spend enough time creating a fully realized character.

Here are some of my favorite characters I’ve read in the last year or so:


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