She Does Not Dance

She Does Not Dance

Imagine that you create a character who is not a dancer – two left feet, ungainly, embarrassed at her lack of rhythm. You do not intend her to dance. One day you’re surprised that she’s tripping across the pages, twirling and bowing, barely touching the floorboards.

Judith Simpson, a wonderful creative writing teacher in the Queens University adult learning program some years ago, called this phenomenon “the girls in the basement.” These imps are down there scheming the takeover of your character. They cackle in glee when she starts to swirl her skirts and move her feet to the music. While you’re wondering what just happened. Your careful plot outline, your attention to the character arc, all upended.

In a conversation with an artist friend today, she showed me her latest work. I commented that she deftly captured the essence of her subject, a young woman bathed in mystery. She worried that she would have trouble containing the image – “She just wants to step out of the canvas. She owns more of the canvas than I do!”

From what I’ve learned from other writers and artist friends, this rebellion by our well-disciplined characters and subjects is not unusual. I value their advice to let the character take the lead, to forget my outline long enough to see where her adventure takes the story. When I’ve followed that advice, I’ve come to love the independence of the characters. One more reason this work of creating is so much fun.


  1. As an author of fiction, I once had a secondary character take top spot in my story and I am so glad he did.

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