I’ve never been comfortable with the ways most writers talk about their relationship with their characters. It feels like there’s two extremes: either the writer says, “My characters choose which direction to go in and I don’t have much say in the matter,” or “My characters are my invention and they jump in the direction I need them to jump.” Neither feels like the way I write.
Today it occurred to me, I work with my characters the way I babysit children. I have no problem with them leading me in an unexpected direction or wanting to focus on something I hadn’t thought was important. That leads to richer, more interesting play for everyone. In the context of fiction, maybe a side character wants to get more involved, or maybe two characters start flirting with each other, creating a romantic subplot I hadn’t expected. Those surprises keep my writing feeling organic and interesting rather than mechanical and paint-by-numbers. I don’t want to shut those down entirely.
But I’m the parent, as it were, and sometimes I need to make sure those digressions don’t make it impossible for us to get where we’re going. So sometimes that means going back over my manuscript and realizing the flirting started because I was carelessly throwing in dialogue tags like sighs or smirks in a particular scene. Change the tags, and that problematic romance turns into a solid friendship (or even enmity). Or, if I discover that while my side character is fun, they sap the energy and focus from the main plot, so maybe I need to snip them out of this story and save them for a different book.
I’m not in total control, nor should I be. I like it when my subconscious sparks new ideas. But once those ideas bubble up, I feel like what makes a good writer is the ability to choose whether to develop those ideas or shut them down. You can’t let the kids run roughshod over you. Sometimes you have to be the parent.