Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Our Characters as Free Moral Agents

Some people see the world as something like a big stage with us as the actors, with God as the playwright and we are acting out scenes for his pleasure, following his script, though we don’t know the script. They would have us believe that, though we may feel like we are making choices, we are just following a script. I won’t go into why, but I don’t believe this. There are plenty of biblical reasons why this concept does not hold true, but that’s a discussion for another time. The question I have is what of our characters? Do they make their own choices?

Writers are not gods, though some may think they are. We do not have the power to bring our characters to life and we certainly don’t have the ability to give them autonomy, but neither do we have the foreknowledge of God. We might begin a story by just a vague idea of where we’re headed or we might outline a story to death. Whatever we do, there are things we don’t know until we reach that point in the story. In our outline, we might have a character who we believe is going to do something mean, such as replacing the protagonist’s hairspray with spray paint. As we approach the scene, we get to know the antagonist. She goes from being a simple villain to being a person with desires and fears. Events have led her to this point. We’ve placed the spray paint in her hand and she has replaced the label. She is standing at the protagonist’s dressing room table ready to switch the two cans, but the turns and walks away, taking the spray paint with her.

Nothing is quite as frustrating to a writer as to have a character who refuses to do as she is told. That wonderful scene at the hair salon is ruined because the antagonist has reached a line she will not cross. It almost seems like our character has a mind of her own. In actual fact, the problem is that we writers realize that the character’s back-story, and the events leading to the scene will not justify the action, but why get hung up on facts? It is sometimes more helpful to think of the character as a free moral agent. It is perfectly within our right as the writer to force our character across a line she refuses to cross, but it is not helpful to our writing. We have options. We can change the back-story, but that is like creating a new character. We can change the events leading up to the scene or we can go with the flow, changing the events that follow. Either case will change our plot. The worst option we have is to force our character’s hand.

It can be fun to let our characters do their thing. By letting the story flow our characters are not so one-dimensional. When a character refuses to do what she is told, or chooses to do something unexpected, there is something there worth exploring. The stereotype is broken. We and the readers will want to know why. Who knows, we may find a path through our story that we didn’t know existed. We might find a resolution that is much better than the one we planned. It is, after all, our character’s story. Let them decide how it turns out.