Jeff Seymour - Author of Fantasy, Literary Fiction, & c.: Thoughts on Fictional Characters and Free Will

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Monday, May 5, 2014

Thoughts on Fictional Characters and Free Will

My sister recently sent me a link to this blog post, which contains a link to this blog post, which consists mostly of four questions for writers on how they think about their characters. I've been noodling it, and I figured I'd take a stab at answering them today, in part because somehow it got to be 11:00 p.m. and I still haven't written a blog post today.

So here goes.

1. Do you ever perceive your characters as having any free will? Do you feel like you consciously control everything your characters do, or do you sometimes feel like they control their own actions?

A two-part question! That's cheating. I don't think of my characters as having free will. One reason I think fiction is worth having (because this cannot be done to nearly the same degree in nonfiction) is that it allows you to very clearly lay out the chains of causation that lead people to take the actions they do. There are greater and lesser degrees of that in every story, and how much you show the reader is a creative choice, but in my head, every time a character takes an action, I know why. And that makes it difficult to maintain the illusion that they have any free will. The world is constantly pushing them into things, and even when they choose to buck what other people want them to do, they're still doing that because of who they are, which is a result of their life experiences.

That's not to say that my characters don't surprise me. They often do, if only because when I'm plotting or writing a first draft I often make assumptions about how they'll behave that don't add up when push comes to shove, or I learn/create things about them as I write that alter the way they interact with the world and with other characters.

2. Do you perceive your characters as having more free will (or more of a “mind of their own”) if they are similar to you or dissimilar to you? Does the point of view you are writing in ever affect this?

No and no. But what the question seems to be digging for is "do you ever feel like your characters have more a mind of their own?" and the answer to that is yes. Every once in a while, a character seems to spring forth from the depths of my mind more or less fully formed. Their personality is so strong that I know what they're going to do in any given moment without understanding why or sometimes even knowing more than the most basic facts about their history. And when that happens, they surprise me more often.

3. Do reader/fan reactions ever change your understanding of who a character “really is” (or have you ever discovered something you did not realize was true about one of your characters based on feedback from early readers?)

Yes. Maybe it's a sign that I'm not as tight a writer as I'd like to be, but I imagine this happens to everyone. When I write, I leave space inside the narrative for the reader to inhabit. Every person who reads my books will read them slightly differently. Thinking the way I do about stories (which is that they take place only in the reader's mind, and that the words on the page are really just code designed to evoke a story in someone's mind), it surprises me more often that anyone ever agrees on who my characters are.

4. If you’ve ever had a movie made from your book, do you think the movie altered your mental image/concept/understanding of the character in any way?

Go ahead. Rub it in. I'll have you know that Peter Jackson has been alerted to my book, so it's only a matter of time before he turns it into a trilogy.

Hope that's some interesting food for thought! And happy May.


  1. a fan of your writing, that Peter Jackson barb...that could be a double edged sword. Some stories need to be a trilogy, but he seems to like to take a story and make it into a trilogy -each installment separated by 2 years... ::sigh::

    1. I hear you on that! I'd just seen his second Hobbit movie when I wrote this blog post, and I had its, excesses...shall we say? in mind.