Let Your Characters Go Free Range

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Free range

One of the things I love most about Nanowrimo is how all of the pressure is off. During this month it doesn’t matter whether or not you have pages of outlines or character sketches. You can do what you want and there’s freedom to see where things lead. This isn’t always true the rest of the time. When you’re writing in a series, on a deadline, or a book that you’re seriously hoping to market, it’s easy to feel like a lot of that freedom is lost.

This, for me, is especially true for characters. It’s easy for me to get hung up on who they “should be,” or what they’re supposed to be doing. As a result, my stories sometimes bog down because my characters are trying to break free and I’m not letting them. I’m busy pushing them through the story to the end. But it’s my story, not necessarily theirs. And when I lose sight of that, there are problems. Characters need to have their say, too.

Characters are like real people. They need to grow and develop. You expect that they will sometimes act irrationally if pushed too far. They need to explore their environment and make decisions based on what they learn. The problem is, sometimes their author (me) fails to let them do these things.

Now, I’m not a huge outliner. In fact, I tend to fly by my pants, especially at the beginning. But once I get going? I tend to get a one track mind and do everything I can to push those characters to the end. Even when it’s not the best thing for them. Or the story.

I’ve discovered that the solution is to bring a little Nanowrimo to the rest of the year: I turn my characters loose and let them free range. I let them roam where they want, do what they want, and generally go crazy. I give them permission to stop making sense.

And I’ve discovered that this is when the magic happens. Frequently, my characters will roam into a part of my world that I haven’t created yet, creating it as they go. Sometimes they’ll meet another character I haven’t yet thought of. They’ll sometimes go off and get new jobs, start new quests, or dump their significant other in favor of someone else. In other words, when I let them free range, they tend to tell me what they need to do.

Sure, not all of it works. Sometimes I have to tell them no, they can’t do whatever crazy thing it is they want to do. It may not jibe with earlier installments, or it may not be sustainable over the long term. But usually there is a grain of something in there I can use. Maybe I can’t let him work at McDonald’s, but I can let him be an awesome backyard grill chef.

Even if I can’t use everything, my story and its world are expanded and better off. New characters have been created out of necessity. My main character went free range to find a friend, and I found him a support group. Or he suddenly needed to see the beach, so off we went, creating a new place for action to take place.

They’ve had experiences and grown a bit. Maybe they’ve even changed. Whether for better or worse doesn’t really matter. Change drives the story. I often find out how they react to change or under adversity and that gives me more to work with. If I can find what makes them crazy or causes them pain, I can give them more of it. (Cruelty, thy name art novel writing.)

Free ranging my characters is also fun. It’s a great creativity exercise. Unlike starting a new story or free writing, free ranging my characters is an exercise that also moves the current work forward. It’s not “wasted time,” or at least it doesn’t carry that negativity.

Sometimes characters just have to go and do. We writers want them to do things a certain way because we need to get them from Point A to Point B and we think we know how that should happen. But what if Point B doesn’t really exist, or the journey needs to take longer? What if Point B is only the stopover and the destination is really Point C? That’s what free ranging can tell you. Your outline is useful, but sometimes your characters need to deviate from it in order to tell the better, fuller story.

So send ’em out into the world. Let them fail, let them fall, let them wander. Let them go after the things that matter, even if you don’t see how it matters just yet. Turn them loose from the shackles of the outline and see what happens. You’ll probably be pleasantly surprised. And you’ll capture a little of that Nanowrimo freedom and lunacy during the rest of the year.


(Photo courtesy of music4life)

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