Do Your Characters Take On a Mind of Their Own?

The psychology behind the authors’ experience of characters developing their own will and taking control

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Many writers experience the sense that their characters have developed minds of their own. They begin to dictate their own story, and at times, may even resist the authors plans for them and reroute the entire narrative!

At first glance, this may sound like the author is either crazy — or at the very least, lacks preparation or control over their story. Like a structure built without a blueprint or foundation, it’s vulnerable to wild shifts in the wind.

On the other hand, while outlines and character sketches are essential, there’s no life in them. Like Pinocchio, they have a body, but they are not yet real. In writing, the magic happens when we carefully craft our story foundations and then allow them to come alive before us.

As novelist John Fowles described in The French Lieutenant’s Woman:

“You may think novelists always have fixed plans to which they work, so that the future predicted by Chapter One is always inexorably the actuality of Chapter Thirteen. We (novelists) know a world is an organism, not a machine. We also know that a genuinely created world must be independent of its creator; a planned world (a world that fully reveals its planning) is a dead world. It is only when our characters and events begin to disobey us that they begin to live.”¹

In ancient days, poets and dramatists attributed this source of inspiration to the muses. Modern psychology has a different explanation.

The “Illusion of Independent Agency” is Actually Very Common

In a study by Marjorie Taylor, 92% of authors surveyed described the sensation of their characters taking on a voice of their own.² To describe the experience, she coined the term Illusion of Independent Agency.

Notably, the authors who experienced this phenomenon also scored higher in tests of empathy and were more likely to have had childhood imaginary companions. In a way, they were expert pretenders.

Another survey led by psychologist John Foxwell found that 71% of professional writers surveyed felt that their characters became more autonomous over time — usually after about 30,000 words.³

Among those Foxwell surveyed, one author reported that their characters “develop their own narratives, rapidly accumulating their own histories and anecdotes.”⁴

This autonomy typically doesn’t happen from the start but emerges about a third or midway through the story. By that point, both the author and the character begin to influence the direction the stories go.

As Stephen King describes it:

“For me, what happens to characters as a story progresses depends solely on what I discover about them as I go along — how they grow, in other words. Sometimes they grow a little. If they grow a lot, they begin to influence the course of the story instead of the other way around.”⁵

Playwright Michael Frayn described it as:

“…a very symbiotic relationship. You do seem to be with people who have minds of their own, thoughts of their own, but at the same time you’re very much involved in leading their lives with them.”⁶

So what’s going on here? If an author truly is in control of their story world, how can they be influenced and even defied by their own creation?

Subconscious Social Models

As social creatures, we are highly attuned to the minds of others.

In fact, our thirst to uncover each other’s hidden emotions and motivations is one of the reasons we are so drawn to fictional characters. It is also one reason why many children create imaginary friends.

These companions often seem to take on lives of their own as well. Children may say they’re annoyed with their imaginary friends because they refused to play by the child’s rules. This seems counterintuitive, but it’s often a way for a child to practice a real-world social exchange or externalize their own emotions so they can better understand them.

The more we know someone — whether a real person or a fictional character — the more complex and vivid the mental model we build of them. This allows us to interpret and predict their reactions on a more subconscious level.

Like all skills we repeat a lot (like typing or driving) the process soon becomes automatic. It takes a lot of thought at first, but eventually, we can do it without really thinking about it.

This is important, because given the number of social interactions we engage in daily, we must learn to rapidly interpret and respond to shifts and changes in each other’s behavior.

So when authors spend a lot of time thinking about their characters, they essentially get to know them so well, they understand on a subconscious level what they will think, feel, and do in any given situation. When those subconscious predictions bubble up to the conscious mind, they seem as though they come from nowhere!⁷

This experience also relates to the concept of “flow” — or a state of mind in which an athlete or performer becomes so engrossed in an activity, it becomes subconscious and effortless. Remember, authors are expert pretenders. What they must do consciously at first becomes automatic once they get into the flow zone.

How Characters Defy Us

Source: Nils Holgersson Selma Lagerlöf via Pixabay (CC0)

As humans — and storytellers — we have a deep and inherent understanding of psychology. We understand how people generally act and react to circumstances and can predict others’ experiences based on our own.

We are also very good at detecting when people behave in a way that is incongruent with who we know them to be.

For example, we can tell a friend is upset or uncomfortable, even if they plaster a grin on their face and tell us they’re fine. Though our conscious minds see a smile on the surface, our subconscious perception can pick up on subtle cues, reference all of our past experiences with that person, and alert us that something seems off.

Likewise, as authors, we may put our character into a certain situation and consciously decide what they may think, feel, or do next. But don’t forget, our subconscious mental models have also made a prediction behind the scenes — and may have come up with something different. At that point, we sense a disconnect.

So which is right? Think of it this way. Your conscious mind can refer to your ideas, your outlines, and your character sketches. But your subconscious mind can also tap into all the data it’s ever been fed about your character, your story world, all the people you’ve ever known, and everything you’ve learned about human behavior and social experience in general.

When resolving such a disconnect, we may feel an urge to rewrite the scene to match what our subcconscious instinct is telling us feels right. In the same manner, when facing a friend who is giving us mixed signals, we would change our reaction: instead of smiling back at them, we might gently ask if they are okay.

Because this process is so automatic, imaginative authors might be surprised by it, and even sense that the idea has come from nowhere. Really, it’s from their own inherent understanding of the character.

All of this doesn’t mean that we can’t consciously change course with our characters. In fact, we do learn more about people when they present us with different, unexpected behaviors. But in real life — and fiction — people don’t usually have major personality shifts out of nowhere. If they do, we sense something is wrong.

So if we try to write wild inconsistencies into our story, our subconscious minds — just like an editor — try to keep us in check.

From My Experience

I do my best writing when I simply let go. I have felt the magic of my character speaking through me, recalling or noticing things that were never part of the plan. It has in fact changed the entire outcome of my books in dramatic ways I could never have predicted.

Ten years ago, the concept for a novel came to me out of nowhere. Excited, I grabbed a pen and small notebook and, in a rush, filled the pages with the entire outline from start to finish.

But as I began the process of writing, my inspired tale began to lose some of its magic. What had once made sense in an outline wasn’t coming together in the story world.

The character I thought I knew didn’t actually seem all that motivated by the past events I’d invented for him. As I tried to steer him towards the ending I’d written, he dragged his feet. If I had to describe the feeling, it was like losing the wind in my sails. The character wasn’t strongly driven and so neither was I.

I set the work aside and didn’t touch it for ten years.

When I finally picked it back up again, I still felt the disconnect between the character I’d been thinking about for so long and the storyline I had planned for him. I realized that I either needed a new main character, or I needed a new story.

But it’s a very scary thing to unravel your carefully threaded outline, to take something entirely apart without knowing if you can put it back together again.

Then, one day, I was thinking about a completely different idea and saw a climactic scene play out in my mind.

Suddenly, I heard my character’s voice in the back of my mind saying, “This what’s supposed to happen to me. This is my ending!”

“No way,” I said back. I couldn’t do it. It was way too big of a scene. It would completely obliterate the foundation of the novel. It was basically like deciding to put new tile in the kitchen and having to bulldoze the entire house first. So I ignored my character’s nagging as long as I could, and once again, my writing stagnated.

Months later, while stuck in traffic, I decided to do a thought exercise. I opened my mind up and said, “If — theoretically — I were to use that crazy ending my character wants, what would the rest of the story look like?”

I turned on my Voice Memos and started narrating the story from the beginning. And to my amazement, the entire novel unfolded and refolded before me. Every piece I’d once awkwardly shoved into place now fit perfectly. Everything my character had experienced in the beginning of the story actually came full circle and made sense in a new light.

Darn it if he didn’t know better than I did.

Of course — he was really me, or my subconscious brain connecting dots with all the information about this story that I’d fed it over the last ten years. That day, I was able to rise above the crude map I’d drawn and see the better path.

So next time you feel stuck as a writer, don’t overthink it! In fact, do the opposite. Listen to the voice that seems to come from nowhere, break a few rules, and let your imagination play and explore for a bit. You might not realize where it’ll end up taking you, but sometimes, that’s where the real magic awaits.


[1] J. Fowles, TheFrenchLieutenant ‘s Woman, Little, Brown & Company, Boston, 1969.

[2] Taylor, M., Hodges, S.D., and Kohanyi, A. (2003). “The Illusion of Independent Agency: Do Adult Fiction Writers Experience Their Characters as Having Minds of Their Own?” Imagination, Cognition, and Personality, 22, pp.361–38.

[3] Foxwell, John et al. “‘I’ve learned I need to treat my characters like people’: Varieties of agency and interaction in Writers’ experiences of their Characters’ Voices.” Consciousness and cognition vol. 79 (2020): 102901. doi:10.1016/j.concog.2020.102901

[4] Foxwell, J. (2018). “I Won’t Be Involved with this Fictional Plot”: Characters’ Agency and Authors’ Intentions. Talk at Personification Across Disciplines, Durham, UK.

[5] King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Scribner trade pbk. ed., 10th anniversary ed. New York, NY, Scribner, 2010.

[6] Frayn, M. (2011). Quoted in On writing: Authors reveal the secrets of their craft. The Guardian.

[7] Davies, J. Imagination: The Science of Our Mind’s Greatest Power. Pegasus Books, 2019.

Do Your Characters Take On a Mind of Their Own? was originally published in The Writing Cooperative on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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Author: Laurie Knapp