Listening to Your Characters by Karen Brenchley

When I was a kid, my favorite toy was a set of tiny wooden figures called Little People, made by the Fisher Price company. These were very crude, with solid bodies and minimal markings to distinguish hair and faces, but I gave each of the thirteen or so I had individual names and personalities. I would pour out the set of wooden blocks I’d had since babyhood, and use those to create structures around which I would play — tell stories about — these people. Some were related, some were enemies, a couple of them were adults, hence authority figures. I had hours of fun with these over the years, but I didn’t change the games much, and the personalities were always the same, so I lost interest. I grew up.

Little People

The first couple of stories I sold, I identified closely with the main characters. To some extent, I felt like she or he was in fact me. Then one day I started a story where I knew the main character was an older woman in a near, post-climate change future, who I named Mother Mary Eulalia, Bishop of the Diocese of Deseret. She was definitely not like me in personality. I was envisioning her as older and thoughtful, and as the story opened she was walking on an overpass over a train station. I also knew that someone in the story was a terrorist, who was setting bombs on trains. I noodled over the plot, but just couldn’t get the story going, until very nice, proper Mother Mary Eulalia told me that she was the terrorist bomber.

I felt betrayed. My stomach churned. I felt like a friend had confided a horrible secret to me, as if my best friend had admitted to robbing banks or poisoning children. I put the story down and couldn’t touch it for weeks, but deadlines being what they are I picked it up again, and the story worked a lot better thanks to Mary Eulalia’s tip. (You can read “Songs of Innocence”, which I brought to Milford in 2010, in Tales From the House Band vol 2.)

I have a historical universe I’d been playing with that I picked up again recently. I already know who the main set of characters are, and have been working on getting to know them, and how the plot will affect them, and how they will affect the plot. And then one of the very minor characters started talking to me. He’s a teenager, about fourteen years old, and besides that all I knew was that his name was David and he wrestled. Until one day he said to me, “Hey, did you know I’m Jewish? And I think I’m going to get along well with the Christian friar. We might even discuss philosophy.” No, I did not know that. That couldn’t be. In this time period the Jews had been expelled. Except, apparently, this one. And his family. And did I know he was gay?

So that story has been completely sent off the rails into a new direction, one that I think is going to be much more interesting. My characters seem to be a lot smarter than I am, if I’m just smart enough to listen to them.


Karen in living roomKaren Brenchley has had science fiction, steampunk, and fantasy stories appear in various anthologies both alone and with her husband, Chaz Brenchley. She founded the SF in SF reading series with Terry Bisson, and edited her husband’s Lambda Award-winning collection “Bitter Waters”. She designs analytics tools for large, unstructured data sets, is a defunct black belt in aikido, and lives in Sunnyvale with her husband, two squabbling cats, and a long-suffering turtle. See more at her website .

About Jacey Bedford

Jacey Bedford maintains this blog. She is a writer of science fiction and fantasy (, the secretary of Milford SF Writers (, a singer ( and a music agent booking UK tours and concerts for folk performers ( She's also a Home Office / UK Visas and Immigration department licensed sponsor processing UK work permits (Certificates of Sponsorship).
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2 Responses to Listening to Your Characters by Karen Brenchley

  1. Cheryl Sonnier says:

    I love it when my characters surprise me like that. Even when it totally changes the plot – it usually works out for the better and adds more depth, from my experience.


  2. Jacey Bedford says:

    I tend to find that if my characters are trying to take over it’s because I’ve subcionsciously realised that I’m trying to send them in the wrong direction and need a course-correction. (It’s always worth checking.) On the other hand, sometimes they’re just awkward buggers and need dealing with firmly before they hijack the whole plot.


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