Killing Your Muse with No Saving Throws Left

A guest post by David Boop

I have a writer friend, James, who in his early days used RPG character sheets to list out all the traits of his protagonist, antagonist, and major supporting characters. That way, when he went to write his novel, he’d have a resource to look back on for continuity’s sake. This, in theory is a sound idea. I’ve known other authors who’ve used similar mapping techniques for their characters, settings, equipment, and so forth. You’d think an ADD+ positive author like myself would prescribe to such a theory. After all, I have to look up the names of my characters in my own stories.

Repeat. My own stories.

Kind of sad, eh? Once I’m done with a piece, I move on. Sort of like gaming scenarios.

In my time as a GameMaster, I rarely ran the same mission more than once. Why bother? It won’t come out the same and that first time can be magic. The players, in their desire to outthink me as GM, rise to the challenge and present me with ideas they think I won’t predict. Sometimes they have, but most times they are puppets dancing to my invisible strings. The few times I have been ill-prepared for their creativity are some of the best games I’ve run. It’s at those points where the story becomes cooperative.

Characters in novels can be that way, too. Once, I had a supporting character (a squirrel, if you must know) jump up off the page and tell me he needed to die. Mind you, I loved this red-haired, bossy curmudgeon and had the intention of letting him die. He insisted, and so I wrote the death scene just to please him. The little rodent bastard was right. He needed to die. The story was so much better for it. Now, before you call the white coats to take me away, I’m not crazy. I’m an author. I’m paid to do what the voices in my head tell me to do. If you’re not, if you’re trapping your creativity in charts, character sheets, and drawings of your mecha, you may be locking your muse behind a wooden door no lockpicking skill is going to help, no matter how many skill points you’ve put into it.

Maybe because I’m ultimately a pantser (i.e. seat-of-my-pants writer), I prefer to see where the story takes me. That means occasionally, after I get an idea in the third act, I’ll have to go back and rewrite acts one and two to make the cool, new idea fit. And yes, that can take extra time, throw off work schedules, cancel events, and generally cause a dip in the Dow Jones for the day, but it’s fine. Writing is a collaborative process between my mind, body, and soul. The best stories come when one tries to outthink the other, pushing me forward toward the shared goal of an exceptional piece of fiction (if only in my own humble opinion.) I’ve been preparing for this challenge my whole life, thanks to ornery players who refuse to see the clues I so carefully lay out for them and choose to kill the kindly king trying to help them instead of just listening to him. Arg! Six hours of prep time wasted! Same with writing. I’ve changed the killer, the victim, and the motive of a crime from what I started with in some stories. And again, it’s costly, but I’ve always been happier with the results in the end.

That being said, I have outlined some of my novels by request. I’m glad I did, as they were complicated, multilayered plots, and outlining helped me in the writing process, even if I veered away from the outline once the writing started. It’s not my natural way to write, but I see the purpose of it, and why some choose to do it. Whether you do or don’t, don’t trap yourself like my aforementioned party did, when trying to flee the castle after killing the king. It usually requires some sort of sacrifice to the writing Gods (or GM in their case; and I just love Twizzlers) to get yourself out. Allow yourself backdoors to escape through, be open to changes in your character’s personalities based on what you’ve put them through, and most importantly, be ready to kill those most clever of ideas you thought were immortal when you first conceived your story.

As I end this, I’ll paraphrase words given by Nero Wolfe to his right-hand man Archie Goodwin (as written by the late, great Rex Stout): “You are to [write] in the light of experience as guided by intelligence.”

In other words, trust your instincts and free your muse.

Guest Writer Bio:
David BoopDavid Boop is a Denver-based single dad, returning college student, step worker and author. He has one novel and over thirty short stories across several genres. His media tie-in work includes Green Hornet and Honey West. David enjoys anime, the Blues and Mayan History.

Find out more at his webpage or at his facbook fan page.

His first novel on Amazon: She Murdered Me with Science

2 responses on “Killing Your Muse with No Saving Throws Left

  1. Frank Morin

    I know what you mean about needing to be open to new ideas. I started as a pantser but have moved more and more into an planner to reduce the number of rewrites since my stories tend to be pretty complex. However, while I’m writing scenes that I’ve previously planned out, I keep myself open to those flashes of inspiration you can only get while you’re in ‘the zone’. Some of the best ideas can only come in those moments. If they break the plan, then I’ve got to step back, review the overall story with the new scene in mind, and reshape the plan to include it. For me, that mixture of both approaches works best.

  2. Paul Shen-Brown

    I always outline my plots before I begin writing, but I often change the outlines as I go. I also have sought the comments of readers which have led to changes to those outlines. Other graphic techniques used by some public school teachers (thinking maps of various sorts) are useful not just for mapping out plots but also for getting a better grip on complex characters. But the “be flexible” mantra has to be taken seriously. I can remember times (ancient times) when I used to do RPGs when those defined character attributes got in the way of making a story flow well, so the idea of using character sheets to outline the personalities of major characters may be a starting point, but only a starting point. Characters have to evolve like everything else in life. Think of David Brin’s central characters in his second Uplift trilogy, who began their adventure just looking for something to read no one else had, and ended up in a different galaxy, on a mission to bring the joy of sailing to a race of galactic bureaucrats. Quirky, but far more interesting than all the tales of silver-plated heroes on their quests to do the expected heroic deeds.

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