There are two schools of thought on character independence. Some pretty renowned authors say that their characters can still take them by surprise, and they like it when that happens. (I think, from memory, that Robin Hobbs is one such.) Others say that it’s nonsense because the whole story is coming from the author’s head, so how can those creations take their creator by surprise? They tend to attribute this to poor planning of the story.
Andrew Knighton recently wrote a good blog post about this, in which he emphasized that the character comes from the writer and therefore, even if they do something that surprises you, it’s still something that originated in your head. I totally agree with that. But the subconscious is a strange and wibbly thing. Just because something comes from you doesn’t mean you were expecting it. ‘My character made me do it’ isn’t an excuse to shift the blame onto another pair of shoulders – it’s an indication that you got deep inside your character’s psyche without realising it. That’s great. You just unlocked another level of personality. Now you have a responsibility to properly explore and map it, so you can use it to your advantage later and not get sideswiped in the same way again.
At the moment, however, I’m engaged in developing a bunch of characters that absolutely will do things that didn’t come from my head. I’m running a LARP game called London Under in a few weeks, and currently writing up all the character briefs for the 40-odd people involved. They will then take these briefs and, on the night, do things I couldn’t possibly predict. That is both very exciting – in that I’ll get to see a bunch of stories that I could never have come up with alone – and mildly terrifying, in that I won’t have control over these characters. What kinds of horror or beauty will they enact? What holes will they kick in my carefully planned stories? I’ve no way of knowing.
That very real loss of control throws the supposed independence of paper characters into sharp relief. Imagine what would happen if you let someone else dictate how your creations behaved. Would they do the same things as you? Of course not, there’s a different brain in the driving seat. No matter how many surprises your characters throw at you – and if it gets beyond a certain number, then you probably need to go back to the beginning and do a proper character interview to make sure you understand what’s going on – they still have to do what you tell them, because you’re the only one who can tell them to do anything. You’re never really out of control.