J.K. Rowling has very famously said that Harry Potter just walked into her life. That story, abbreviated, from jkrowling.com:
I was travelling back to London on my own on a crowded train, and the idea for Harry Potter simply fell into my head…I did not have a functioning pen with me, but I do think that this was probably a good thing. I simply sat and thought, for four (delayed train) hours, while all the details bubbled up in my brain, and this scrawny, black-haired, bespectacled boy who didn’t know he was a wizard became more and more real to me.
I have often said that the characters are in charge of the story. Crazy as it sounds, when I can’t figure out what to do about a plot point, or what a character would say or do, or how to solve any other kind of problem, I find a quiet place, clear my head, and open myself to what they have to say. Believe it or not it nearly always works.
Sometimes, however, they come along uninvited and barge right on in. Sunday a week ago I was lying in bed, and a name floated into my drowsy mind: “Sam.” Sam? Who the heck is Sam? I puzzled and strained my brain, and I finally remembered Sam Fenton, one of the graduate students in my books, The People of the Green Hills, and its sequel, The Bend of the River. He is certainly a tertiary character, although an interesting one. When he is introduced, he is with his friend Ernie Howard, who says, “I’m Ernie Howard, and this here is my buddy, Sam Fenton…He don’t talk much, but he’s all right.” Sam has come to me before to show me that Ernie’s family discovered him walking on the side of the road when he was six, completely non-verbal. After trying repeatedly to find out where he came from, they kept him as part of their family. I never knew why he was wandering alone when he was so young (he kept that secret from me until now), nor did I know how to fit him into the bigger story. I still don’t. Anyway, on that Sunday morning Sam says to me, “Did you know I’m a math whiz?” No, I did not know that. It turns out he likes to go into the woods to see the patterns in the leaves and such, and one day while he is there he meets a young woman, a naturalist named Johna.
My husband said, “Johna? What kind of name is that?” To which I gave my classic, honest reply, “I didn’t pick it. It’s just what her name is.”
Characters. You can’t live with them; you can’t live with out them.