I am not a rebellious person. Ask anyone who knows me. I can also safely say that my progression as a writer has been fairly standard. My initial characters drew from two distinct—but similar—fields of thought that people find in many creative practices: what I know and wish fulfilment.
This meant a lot of my main characters would start off as me (sometimes literally me just with a name change—gimme a break, I was ten) and would then evolve into this super-confident, independent person that didn’t suffer anxiety from ordering a drink at the coffee shop. A lot of the characters I came up with were also heavily inspired by the people around me as I experimented with the power of creating fictional life.
Some people skip this phase and hats off to them, but there is nothing wrong with using this technique as a kind of petri dish of thoughts. It did mean, however, that a lot of my main characters at the time could be removed from one story and placed into another and nothing would change—and that was an issue. It’s the equivalent of an artist drawing lots of characters, but they all have the same face. Sure, the face could be appealing to look at, but does that really test your skill?
Some tests happen by accident.
One day, minding my own business and pretending to complete a manuscript, I found myself doodling a thought. That thought became a novel idea. Those ideas were later scrapped entirely when the first sentence cropped into my head:
Frost ain’t no friend of mine.
Despite happily writing in the speculative fiction genre for near fifteen years at this point, with a lot of main characters that could wipe out armies without much flex, this was the first character that demanded to be listened to—and I don’t mean by other characters; I mean by me, the author.
This might come across as a bizarre concept for some writers, and I get that, but characters really, really do communicate with us. Some grow to be these indignant concept pieces that evolve and grow in confidence as you do, but some, like my main character above, shoot straight out of the gate like it.
Now, as I said, I’d had a thought for a novel idea but it all got scrapped, it was entirely her fault and I love her for it. The story is objectively better in places where I stopped resisting what I didn’t know and simply wrote.
Now, this particular main character is, in some ways, an archetype of rebellion. She’s hot-headed, feisty, rude and impulsive, and that is the complete opposite of me. I couldn’t withdraw into what I know, but I don’t particularly wish to be her either. Sure, I’d love to have her brazen charm that comes with being a bit of a clown, but I am not drawn to living like that. There was no wish fulfilment on my end. She makes mistakes and has opinions that I disagree with. She is a vehicle to tell a story, sure, but I can tell you with utmost confidence that it is her story.
Rebellion isn’t a personality, however. Characters need to be real, fully-fledged individuals, and part of what made them who they are also made them rebellious. You can’t just add a rebellious nature as an afterthought—it needs to be integral to the character. In my case, it was, and that is why it worked.
Not only did writing such a rebellious character affect my writing, but it changed how I interacted with the world. Since finishing her story, I’ve moved on to find myself being more assertive. Instead of leaking into my character, the character leaked into me (I also say ‘ain’t’ whenever I’m feeling rambunctious enough).
Writing a rebellious character—one that does not conform to the author’s opinions—is a great experiment and test as a writer, regardless of whether you use them in a final product. Start small, find a character that you feel will not tolerate you. Maybe you have fundamentally opposed opinions, maybe they’re a villain, or maybe they’re simply someone who is quite unlike you personally. Put them in a situation that pushes and pulls the both of you and see what directions you find yourself in.
This exercise, at least in my mind, un-trains the writer to demand certain control over their work and allow for unforeseen situations. This is in no disrespect to people who plan their work down to the dots, but as someone who has done this, I can say that there are organic developments in novels that I’ve never seen coming and needed to adjust. I’ve found that minor changes are more than certainly capable of fracturing entire plotlines if I’m not careful enough or can lead to consistencies later on if I’ve been too stubborn to accept change.
Now, these changes rarely affect the overall message that my story is attempting to tell, but if allowed to flow, they can be told with less restriction and in more natural feeling ways. Readers, while open the suspension of disbelief by nature, are sensitive to forced narratives. Yes, you may have designed these two characters to get together after defeating the dragon/gnome/ex/cable guy, but once they’ve been fleshed into real people, maybe they’re just not that into each other? What you need is a rebellious character to teach you that it’s okay.
Unfortunately, my first real rebellious character was an accident. Conceived as I waited in the cold for a train, I didn’t expect her to be so demanding, nor did I know how life-changing her existence would be to me as a writer. I genuinely see that moment as a pivotal scene in my writing career, but I couldn’t force it. I merely embraced it.
So, are you sitting on a character that you’re too scared to listen to? Or maybe they’re demanding to be heard but you’re adamant that you’re following the narrative as you designed it. Maybe you’re like me and all your characters are clones playing cosplay for different worlds? Maybe your writing is becoming samey or cliché or whatever. I am fully invested in your journey into the realms of a rebellious character—it is nothing but a wonderful experiment into the deepest depths of your mind.
© 2019 Lannah Marshall
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Sometimes she writes. Sometimes she doesn’t. Either way, she’s not doing what she’s supposed to be doing.