In Praise of Cage-Free Characters

Fiction writers range from the plotters to the pantsers. At the plotter end are those who meticulously outline each chapter of their novel. At the pantser end are the ones who start with an idea and a main character and then write by the seat of their pants.

In Praise of Cage-Free Characters, guest post by Micheal A. Kahn
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The work of a true plotter is easy to spot: every element of the plot, every twist and turn, clicks together as smoothly as a well-oiled set of gears. No loose ends, no missing links. Erle Stanley Gardner was a consummate plotter, as he demonstrated repeatedly in his hugely popular Perry Mason novels.

So, too, the work of a true pantser is easy to recognize: the plotline tends to meander and even double-back on itself as characters pull it in one direction or another. And there are often loose ends. Raymond Chandler was a pantser, and a good example is his Philip Marlowe mystery, The Big Sleep. William Faulkner—yes, that William Faulkner—was hired to write the screenplay for the 1949 movie version starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Faulkner and director Howard Hawkes were both fans of Chandler and wanted to make sure their movie stayed true to the book. And thus both were troubled by the death of the Sternwood family chauffeur, a pivotal event early in the novel. Despite their careful re-reading of the novel, neither could figure out who killed the chauffeur—or why. Ultimately, so the story goes, they sent Raymond Chandler a telegram asking those very two questions. His response: “I have no idea.” 

Like most authors, I fall somewhere in the middle. I start with a plot idea, a cast of characters, and a general sense of where I hope to arrive in the final chapter. And that’s when the fun can begin. My advice: should a free-range character show up in your manuscript, sit back and enjoy. There is nothing more exciting and fun, for writer and reader, then that moment when a character takes control of a scene, or a chapter, or sometimes the whole work. My favorite example is Falstaff, one of the greatest free-range characters of all time. I am convinced that William Shakespeare’s original plan was to make Henry IV a single play, as he did with its successor (Henry V) and its predecessor (Richard II). But instead, Falstaff exploded into life, took charge of his scenes and ultimately the play, which had to expand into two, Henry IV, Part 1 and Henry IV, Part 2, in order to contain all of Falstaff’s exploits. I’m sure Shakespeare had fun, and audiences have shared in that delight for centuries.

In my Rachel Gold novels, my favorite cage-free character is Benny Goldberg. Fat, crude, brilliant, and hilarious, he is Rachel’s best friend. And he most certainly has a life of his own. I still remember the time my wife Margi poked her head into the kitchen late one night while I was writing one of my novels. “What’s so funny?” she asked. Apparently, she’d heard me laughing from the bedroom. I turned to her with a big grin. “You won’t believe what Benny just said.” She gave me an odd look, said goodnight, and backed slowly out of the room.

So my advice to all writers: embrace those cage-free characters. Yes, I realize they will occasionally screw up your outline, but it’s worth it—and your readers will agree.

Michael A. Kahn is a trial lawyer by day and an author at night. He wrote his first novel, GRAVE DESIGNS, on a challenge from his wife Margi, who got tired of listening to the same answer whenever she asked him about a book he was reading. “Not bad,” he would say, “but I could write a better book than that.” “Then write one,” she finally said, “or please shut up.” So he shut up–no easy task for an attorney–and then he wrote one. 

Kahn is the award-winning author of: seven Rachel Gold novels; an eighth novel, THE MOURNING SEXTON, under the pen name Michael Baron; and several short stories. 

In addition to his day job as a lawyer, he is an adjunct professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis, where he teaches a class on censorship and free expression. Married to his high school sweetheart, he is the father of five and the grandfather of, so far, four. 

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  1. Great guest post! I always look forward to hearing how authors create and develop their characters, both recurring for a series and those that appear in just one book. It makes the reading experience much more enjoyable for me.


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