The Free Will of Characters

The Free Will of Characters

Among some of the many things I can say I am I’m a puppeteer. That means I own (at least) a puppet and know what I’m doing with him. How to move his mouth, sure, but more than that how to make him come alive. Murf is currently my primary puppet. He’s silly. He’s smart. He lives with us and plays with my kids. He is, for all intents and purposes, part of our family. What amazes me about puppeteering is that the puppet really does become alive. He is his own “person” as it were. Certainly I’m the one controlling his hands and his mouth and his eyes but often he will say or do something that will make ME laugh! Sometimes he has even done things he shouldn’t do. Watch Frank Oz or Jim Henson interact with their puppets and you’ll see the same thing. The puppets are under our control but they have their own “will”.

…the character will “tell” the author what it is they’re going to do…

Ask any good author, or any author of good characters, and they will tell you the same thing. Those characters become their own people. They have their own will. Often the character will “tell” the author what it is they’re going to do or what they’re going to say. Certainly the author is directing the book and guiding it where they want it to go — the characters can’t “ruin” the ending — but the characters are free to do as they like within the realms of the author’s sovereignty. They are at liberty to act in as much as the author gives them liberty to act. But, even if the character doesn’t “believe” they’re in a book or that there is an “author” that character can’t just do whatever they like no matter what. In fact, sometimes, they are actually controlled more by the author outside of their own “free will.”

“Liquid Luck” and is a magical potion that makes the drinker “lucky”…

One of my favorite examples of this comes from the book by J.K. Rowling, “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.” In this book Harry and his friends decide to use a potion called, “Felix Felicis” It is also called “Liquid Luck” and is a magical potion that makes the drinker “lucky” for a period of time during which everything they attempt will be successful. Their plan is to use it to get some information from someone else that is otherwise impossible to get. They work together to plan out everything that Harry, the one who will take it, is going to do once he takes it. Where he’ll go… what he’ll say… etc., etc. The interesting thing is that once Harry takes the potion he simply smiles a strange, relaxed smile (in the film) and then, when his friends remind him of the plan, he replies, “Right… I’m going down to [my friend’s house.] His friends instantly argue with him that they had a plan and he simply says, “Yeah, I know… but I feel really good about this idea.”

While thinking about this potion one day I realized that all “Liquid Luck” did was enable Harry to get outside of himself as his character. After he took it he was able to do exactly and only what J.K. Rowling as the author wanted him to do. He didn’t feel obligated to make his friends happy, he wasn’t worried about the outcome of something, he basically had his “free will” set aside and did completely and exactly what the author wanted him to do.

No worries… no problems… everything working out for your good.

Now, obviously, an author doesn’t want characters that just always do everything the they wants them to do without any freedom of their own but what a wonderful mechanism to use a “potion” (or the like) to get the characters to do it when it’s needed. And, from the character’s point of view, what a wonderfully freeing thing to have the spirit of the author controlling you completely. No worries… no problems… everything working out for your good.