As I struggle with a book that's proving to be difficult, I've been talking about characters doing unexpected things, and that's led to some questions about how characters can take over a story, so I thought that would be something interesting to address in a writing post.
I'm sure it works differently for every author. I know there are some who use the "the characters just took over" line as a cop-out for anything that happens in a book that readers don't like, but for most of us, I suspect it has more to do with having to get out of the way of our own work. In my experience, it's not so much that characters just start doing things as it is that as I'm writing, ideas will suddenly pop into my head that aren't quite what I had planned but that I realize are more true to the characters than my original plans. This is more likely to happen when you know your characters from the inside out, and you've internalized the kind of people they are, and I tend to notice it more when I'm trying to impose my will on them -- when I'm trying to make something happen for plot purposes that is actually not quite right for these characters. When I'm doing that, either I'll end up blocked on a scene and unable to move forward, or ideas will start popping up that send things in a different direction.
So how do you make this kind of thing happen? First, you really need to know your characters, deep down inside. What makes them tick? This isn't about their hobbies, favorite colors or favorite subject in elementary school. It's about their deepest inner needs, their real selves, their fears and hopes. That inner need is always going to be there unless the character fundamentally transforms, even if the character achieves the story goal. Inner needs or drives are things like power, a cause, security, freedom, harmony, novelty, belonging, etc. In most cases, this need is going to drive the character's decisions, unless there's something in a specific situation that momentarily makes the character act against that need. So if you're trying to make a character driven by a need for security do something risky, you may find that it's not working, and every idea that pops into your head will involve the character doing the exact opposite. You'll either need to rethink the action or find a motivation strong enough to overcome that drive. If you force it to happen anyway without providing the motivation, it won't ring true to your readers.
You also need to remember that you're writing about your characters, not about yourself. You can't make them act the way you would. I'm finding this a lot in the secondary heroine of my current Fairy Tale series. Emily is pretty much a polar opposite from me. She leaps before looking, takes risks just because they're fun, has little fear, and doesn't worry about long-term consequences. I'm a very cautious person who overthinks things before I act, and my tendency is to hold Emily back. This is when I'll find that the thoughts that pop into my head when writing her tend to be about her being impulsive, skipping the thinking stage entirely. I often resist that, but I've learned that I need to go with it, even though she's not doing what I would do.
A lot of this stuff comes from what I guess you might call the subconscious. Some writers refer to it as "the muse." I know some who refer to "the girls in the basement." This is the part of you that knows the characters and the story and is pure creativity, without the restraints your conscious mind might put on it. There are some things you can do to learn to listen to this part of yourself. One is physical activity -- exercise is great for freeing your mind. A lot of writers swear by water -- the best ideas come in the shower. Mindless tasks can help -- washing dishes, gardening, housework, etc. Freewriting, where you write non-stop, putting out whatever pops into your head, for a certain amount of time, is a good way to tap into your creativity without your internal editor coming out. Other forms of creativity, like drawing, painting, music, or dance, can help, as can play. Get out the Legos or dolls for a while. Distracting yourself while you write can sometimes help -- listen to music, write in a public place, turn on the TV. While you're distracted by other things, you may be surprised by what ends up happening on the page.
This is all going to work differently for different people, so it's hard to describe exactly how it works or exactly how to use it. Your characters can take on a life of their own when you're outlining, when you're writing, or when you're revising. It may happen when you're at the keyboard or when you're daydreaming elsewhere. The main thing is to learn when those impulses that strike you make for a better story and when they're just whims.