Characters ‘taking on a life of their own’ is a refrain I have heard from both amateur and professional writers. Even highly experienced writers have commented on occasion that a particular character has taken them in an unexpected direction in a story they were writing.
What’s happening here?
To some extent, the whole idea that a character ‘comes alive’ and does things of his or her own accord plays into the myth that a character in fiction is a kind of living being, and that the way to create convincing characters is to make them ‘life-like’. But a cursory examination of some of the most successful characters in literature quickly disabuses us of that notion: characters are hardly ever ‘fully developed’ in the sense of possessing complete back-stories and biographies, Some are: best-selling author James Paterson, for example, says that his protagonists have files of data to back them up. But this is rare: most characters are lightly sketched; protagonists are not even physically described very often.
I suppose the growth of the movie culture has also led us towards a predilection for interpreting a character as a living person, given that many of them are portrayed on screen by real people these days. It’s difficult, having seen a film made from a book, to go back to the book and not picture a character as they have been portrayed by an actor. But underneath this cultural tendency to ‘flesh out’ a fictional figure, something else is at work.
In my book How Stories Really Work I look at fiction in a totally original and radical way and examine the phenomenon of vacuums: unknowns, gaps, holes, missing things, threats, losses, mysteries. What pulls our attention in fiction (and in Life) is the vacuum power created by something that is not there. We are moved forward as though we are pulled by a physical force into the emptiness between us and the thing that is missing. So we reach out and acquire things, people, property, emotions, and so on because we become keenly aware that we lack them. This is what moves figures forward in stories too: the classic quest motif is the simplest example - characters set off to acquire something that they lack, or to get rid of something that threatens them.
We can speculate forever about what happens in each individual author’s case when it comes to their created characters, but the underlying mechanics will be the same: a ‘character’ who ‘comes to life’ is a composite of vacuums which has moved into the vicinity of or discovered within itself a greater vacuum. This looks like ‘Life’; it is, in fact, what Life looks like: motion towards a gap, or away from a threat towards the possibility of escape.
It’s a sign that a character has acquired enough ‘vacuum power’ to support a story. Characters who do not exhibit this kind of motion are not yet strong enough to grab or retain much reader attention. The most popular characters with readers are the ones who lack the most, in the context of that story.
A character ‘coming to life’, then, is a story component achieving the purpose for which it was created. To follow that created figure wherever it leads is the act of putting together a successful story, because where it pulls the writer, so it will pull the reader.