Of course developing a character is quite an intimate process. But still, like a story, you can in fact have some tools that give you some sort of axiomatic path on "how-to".

There is a TV writer named Shonda Rhimes. She has an interesting, but confusing, point of view about how she created a particular character. She said that for some characters she knows everything about their lives; for some others she knows almost nothing. Then, she said something quite curious: "I didn't know that character X was violent until that moment".

My question isn't about the particular process of hers; but rather about this "phenomena" that you (you as a writer, as a human being) can carry a character in your mind and suddenly you know something about her/his life (the character "tells you about him/herself). It seems that you have something "alive" in your mind.

Now, how can a creation of your mind (a character) do something that you don't imagine?

I suppose that when you read a book or consume some reference on how to develop a character and the author says something like "You must put your characters in situations to discover more about them", they're saying that your character must have some sort of "independent will, against the mind of their writer".

  • 1
    Hi, I'm so pleased you liked my answer. We do ask though that questioners wait a full day or two before accepting an answer as "best." It gives other people an opportunity to answer and increases the chances that you'll receive multiple helpful answers, which is of course what you want. There's no time limit and you'll always get your 2 points.
    – Cyn
    Commented Aug 31, 2019 at 18:28

2 Answers 2


This makes sense to me because my characters act in very similar ways.

Have you ever been in a novel situation in your own life where you did something unexpected? Maybe you intervened when someone else was being bullied or threatened. Maybe you kept perfectly calm as the car you were driving suddenly spun out of control. Or perhaps you hit your limit and lost it when someone pushed you too far.

You might not have known you had it in you to act this way. Because you'd never tested it. Sometimes we surprise ourselves.

I know my book's characters well. I'm inside their heads. I know their hopes and fears and how they feel about the other characters. But I can't know how they'll act in every situation just like I might not know how I would act.

Even in more mundane situations, you may not know how they'll be until you try them. Sort of how the best way to know if you're compatible with a partner is to take a road trip together.

Do characters have independent will? To a degree, yes. They're imaginary of course but, in a sense, we the authors just birth them. Like with our flesh and blood children, they slowly separate from us and develop lives of their own. With characters we can always write them to say and do whatever we want. We have that control. But, as we get to know them better, some of what we imagined will turn out to be wrong.

If you are in tune with your characters, you'll let them show you who they really are. And you'll listen.

  • Can you give me some advice/technique on how to tune better with an character? Because this is something that I consider a highly non-trivial thing to do.
    – M.N.Raia
    Commented Aug 31, 2019 at 17:36
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    @M.N.Raia This would make a good question all on its own. I would check to see if it's already been asked. I did a quick search and didn't find anything.
    – Cyn
    Commented Aug 31, 2019 at 18:31
  • Here's the follow-up question the OP asked writing.stackexchange.com/questions/47738/… Commented Sep 1, 2019 at 17:09

You're asking how a character, a creation of your imagination, can have free will. It's not easy for me to answer, because "they do". On a very fundamental level, that's what happens when I write. I 'find' my characters, I 'find out' who they are. I can look at an in-story event and say 'this is true', or 'this is false, it couldn't have happened'.

Let me try to delve deeper into what this 'true' means.

I'm sure when you read, you can spot if a character acts "out of character". And you can probably imagine how a character would respond to a situation they haven't encountered before. Criticism levied at fanfics is very often that the characters "would never act this way". What is meant by that?

As a reader, you get to know a character the same way you get to know a person: you observe their actions, you are party to the thoughts they share with you. Think of your friends: you can imagine how they'd answer certain questions, you know how they'd act in certain situations. It's the same with characters - you establish the same kind of familiarity with them, so you can spot when something is "off".

Now, when you are writing, your characters are not pawns that you move on a board at will. Your characters - you're trying to make them complete people. The kind of people whom one could get to know, just as we've discussed above. The way you do it, is you think of them as people. You ask yourself what would this person do, how they would respond, what situation could provoke a certain reaction from them. You carry them in your mind just as you carry your friends in your mind - as complete people, not lists of traits.

You are your characters' god. You put them in all kinds of situations. Doing this, you find out how this "person" you've created in your mind would respond. You can imagine how your friend would respond to an unexpected situation, right? Same here. And if you think about it, you know your characters more intimately than your best friends - you share every thought of theirs. That's where surprises come from, intuiting, "finding what's right". You treat the characters as people.

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