Anyone who’s ever written a novel (or a solid number of short stories) knows that there are times when the story or the character(s) just won’t go the way you want them to. I’m not talking about those times when you feel like you’re unable to pull off a scene, when you feel like your writing skills are simply not up to the task at hand. I mean the times when the story or the characters or a single character start veering away from what you had in mind for them, when a story takes on its own direction, or when a character develops a mind of his/her own.
I realize this kind of thing probably has a psychological explanation rooted in the subconscious, but I still think of it as “the story taking over” or “[character’s name] refusing to cooperate”. Sometimes, when I feel like I, as the writer, have lost control over the events and people I’m writing about, it’s exciting and fun, and I get much better results than my original plan would ever have yielded. Other times, I fight tooth and nail to get my characters back under my thumb and do any number of awful things to them in order to make them do what they’re supposed to do for the story.
Some writers hate rampant character takeovers and the story not going as planned, arguing that it’s plain sloppy not to reign in your characters and stick to the plot you set out to write. Other writers thrive on the anarchy of their characters and the chaos of possible plot turns that even they didn’t expect when they sat down to write a particular story, and the argument on that side of the question is that you leave room for a dynamic, exciting story and characters who are true to themselves rather than slaves to a pre-planned set of actions to move the plot along.
Now, I think both sides have a point. Sticking too much to an outline or a plan can be boring and, worse, get you stuck. Making a character do something whether it feels right when you’re writing it or not usually means that it doesn’t make sense, on some level, that he/she would do what you’re telling your readers he/she is doing. That means you either need to give the character the reigns and do things his/her way, replanning your story accordingly, or you need to have external forces (events and other characters) push that character in the direction you need him/her to go. Which of those do you pick? Whichever one makes the story better.
Then there are times when a writer gives too much leeway to a character, and the character ruins the story. Sometimes it’s because the character isn’t appealing to the reader. Or the character is too obviously appealing to the writer (*cough* Lestat *cough*). Or the character has no clear goals or direction, but is just running around doing stuff. Or the character takes things too far off track to be in line with the overall plot. Again, sometimes you have to force the issue and make the character want what you need him/her to want – and you don’t do that simply by having them do what you want when it feels wrong for them to be doing it. You have to use the power at your disposal, as the writer, as the god of your story world, to affect your character in a way that will get the reaction you need from them.
There are so many external factors that can affect a character’s choices. From weather conditions to family drama, physical danger to a touching observation of a stranger’s troubles, an unexpected break to the anguish of loss – there are so many ways to push and pull at a character, and by using those tools, you not only get your character where you need him/her to be, but you make him/her more accessible to the reader, too. You reveal a lot about someone by showing what gets to him/her. You might even make the reader fall in love with your character by doing so.