When Characters Overrule Their Author


Betty Webb

When the characters take over a manuscript, that’s usually a good thing – for the reader, anyway. As Stephen King famously said, “How can the author surprise his readers if he can’t surprise himself?”
Surprises can have a different impact on the author, though. For instance, when I began DESERT VENGEANCE my new mystery, I had a general idea of the plot: Private Investigator Lena Jones waits in a prison parking lot for the release of the foster father who raped her when she was nine years old. Lena is armed with a large knife called The Vindicator, and she can’t wait to use it. Before I even started working on the manuscript, I knew how vengeance would be served, who would serve it and why, and what would happen to the vengeance-server at the end of the book.

All very neat and tidy.

Then I wrote a detailed, chapter-by-chapter, scene-by-scene outline describing how the central theme of the book would be brought to fruition. That accomplished, I felt confident enough to begin Chapter One, which followed my outline perfectly. And so did Chapters Two and Three. Oh, I was smokin’!

Or so I thought. But in the middle of Chapter Four, Lena Jones rebelled. Refusing to follow my directions, she veered off on a tangent I found unsettling, but couldn’t seem to control. No respecter of outlines, Lena insisted that the book’s other characters join in her rebellion, and Lena being the strong-minded person she is, they followed her orders. Good guys became bad guys, bad guys became semi-good (no one is ever 100% good in a mystery novel), and as the book rolled on, it became a mystery to me, its own creator. As if that weren’t enough, Lena even took it upon herself to create several new characters – four women whose children had all disappeared, their kidnapper/s never identified. I tried to edit them out, but it didn’t work. Somehow they always managed to fight their way back in.

I no longer knew where the book was going, but after some reflection, I realized that Lena knew what VengeanceCover.Finishedshe was doing, from the book’s beginning — which had to be rewritten — to the startling reveal.

Unlike the original ending, the ending Lena insisted upon was so disconcerting that even some mystery reviewers were spooked. Kirkus Reviews wrote, “Webb, no stranger to hot-button issues (DESERT WIND, 2012, etc.) takes on child molestation in a page-turner that presents both her flawed heroine and the reader with plenty of challenges to their moral codes.” That “moral code” business discomfited the hell out of me, too, but I didn’t override Lena’s decision. I let her have her way, even when she charged into territory I had never planned to visit.

How does this sort of thing happen? How can a book turn out to be the exact opposite of what it started out to be? More to the point, why can’t a writer keep her characters in line? After all, isn’t the author the person who is ultimately in control?

You would think that after writing fourteen novels, I would have the answers to those questions, but I don’t. The creative process continues to mystify me every bit as much as it did when I wrote my first book almost two decades ago. Being married to a psychologist hasn’t helped, either. This morning, when I asked him why Lena could take control away from me, he just muttered something about Carl Jung’s theory of the unconscious mind then changed the subject.

His comment about Jung, though, led me to suspect that Lena may be the dark side of my own nature.

But how can that be? I love kitties and puppies and I don’t carry a knife. Or a .38 revolver. Over the years I’ve written about Lena Jones in nine books and one novella, and I almost never see myself in her. And as for our backgrounds… When Lena was four years old, her mother shot her in the head, then disappeared. After Lena emerged from the hospital, she endured a serious of abusive foster homes that would have destroyed a weaker person but instead made her stronger. That’s hardly my life story. I’ve always been surrounded by a large extended family and not one of them has ever tried to kill me. Lena’s world is far more dangerous than the one I inhabit.

And yet…

And yet there’s something about Lena that reminds me of me. I just haven’t fig594162_origured out what it is. Maybe I never will. Jung, whom I also read and enjoy, devoted much of his writing to what he called the collective unconscious, believing that there is a wealth of universal knowledge that creative minds can tap into. Maybe that’s true. Maybe Lena Jones is my conduit to that great collective unconscious. Then again, I could be kidding myself there. It’s more probable, I think, that Lena knows more about me than I know about myself, and is therefore better qualified to make the kind of editorial decisions she made, over my protests, in DESERT VENGEANCE.

I suspect Jung – and Stephen King — might agree with that.

BIO: Betty Webb is the author of 15 books, including the nationally best-selling Lena Jones series(DESERT VENGEANCE, DESERT RANGE, etc), and the humorous Gunn Zoo mystery series (THE PUFFIN OF DEATH, THE KOALA OF DEATH, etc.). Before beginning to write fiction, Betty worked as a journalist, interviewing everyone from U.S. presidents, astronauts who walked on the moon, Nobel Prize-winners, and polygamy runaways. She has taught creative writing classes at the university level, and has been a nationally-syndicated book critic for 30 years. In addition to other organizations, Betty is a member of the National Federation of Press Women, Mystery Writers of America, and the Writers Guild. She has also served as a Writer-in-Residence for the Arizona State Library.