Creative Writing: How to Cope with a Character Who Isn't Working

by JoHarrington

Writing a masterpiece can be difficult if one of your characters isn't co-operating. What do you do when you've lost control of your character? Let me tell you from experience.

It happens to the best of us. We're in the middle of a dramatic scene, full of nail-biting suspense and intrigue, and one of our characters stops.

You're poised to write the dialogue spilling out of their mouths. But they've gone silent. You have absolutely no idea what is going to happen next. Or worse still, you do know, but you cannot manoeuvre your character there for love nor ink.

Something is clearly not working here. So what do you do to rein said character in?

Losing Control of a Character in Fiction Writing

Darren was ruining my novel! He was throwing the other characters off too. It was clearly time to stop and take stock.

Image: Book character blacked outIt's not writer's block. It's something far less tangible, and nearly as frustrating, as all that; and it happened to me last night.

One character moved like a blur through the midst of his perfectly in focus peers. I could pick any one of the others out of that scene and tell you precisely what they were thinking. I understood their motivations. I could describe their mannerisms and turn of speech. But not him.

For the sake of avoiding spoilers, let's call him Darren. Two dozen chapters were in the bag, flowing brilliantly and causing me not a bit of trouble. It was that wonderful mode of writing where all is going well, and your fictional world feels so natural.

I knew that Darren was coming. I'd planned his dramatic entrance since the beginning. In my mind's eye, I'd imagined precisely how it would work. I could envisage where everyone was standing, what they'd say and do. It was going to be glorious.

Then he arrived early. No-one was in position. Darren's great arrival took me by surprise, as much as those characters I'd planned to stun. But I'm an experienced author. I ran with it. The best moments are those which catch the writer out. It's the biggest indication of all that your story is telling itself.

Only Darren's entrance was all that I'd worked out in advance. This didn't concern me. I never do plan things too precisely. I prefer to chuck some checkpoints into the path ahead and let my characters get there as they will. It usually works.

But not this time. Darren felt at best two dimensional. At worst, he was like a silhouette in a space reserved for an important character. All around him, my known people were reacting to things that I could barely see, let alone comprehend. Little by little, they too stopped, almost looking away in embarrassment, and my story ground to a halt.

To me, creative writing isn't so much producing fiction. It's running around like a secretary, taking notes from the scenes playing out in your head. It's describing events from some mental movie, which only you were previously privy to see. When a character like Darren won't show you what's going on, then there's nothing to write.

But such things can be fixed. Even the stubbornest characters can be coaxed to join in the story, if you know how.

Why Bother Saving a Character Which Won't Co-operate?

It would be so much easier just to eject them from the story and continue blithely on with all of the others.
  • Author Confidence.  It can REALLY mess with your own sense of self-worth as a writer, if you can't bring to life a character born in your own head. Such things eat away over time and make you paranoid in the future. (Just ask yourself why I'm writing articles like this instead of finishing Darren's chapter. I'm already a bit scared of him!)
  • Story Narrative. You brought this character in for a reason. Now what? If he or she has gone, then are you going to overwork the rest of your characters, perhaps morphing some of them out of shape, just to continue the plot-line.
  • Amazing Characterization. If your character is strong-willed enough to thwart its actual author,  then this is one kick-ass addition to your story. As soon as you can work together, you're going to find out that this is the best character you ever created.

Solution One: Stop Trying to Control your Character

Trust your characters. Let them tell their own stories, in their own way.

Image: Characters in silhouetteSometimes the problem isn't losing control, it's the author being a control freak.

If you want to write naturally, then drawing up a plan and sticking to it, come Hell or high water, isn't going to work. There will eventually be a rebellious character, who isn't about to do what you say.

In many ways, this is the best issue for an author to deal with. All it requires is stopping writing. Go away from your story for five minutes. Give yourself the space needed to forget what you wanted to write. Come back and write what your character wanted instead. See if that shifted the blockage. Was it a better story-line? 

It's so very tempting to write like you're the boss of your story. All of your readers are going to assume that you were anyway. The reality, as every author knows, is that real (fictional) universes only come to life, when real characters tell real stories. You're just the person crafting the words. Totally different thing.

So let them tell their stories. Even if it means that the blueprint has to go onto a back burner (where it will hopefully slip into the furnace and char into oblivion). Your characters always know what's best.

Solution Two: Have Quality Time with your Character

Your friends are much more likely to come through for you, than some random stranger dragged in off the street.

Image: Silhouette man with umbrellaUsually these situations only happen with a new character or a cameo. It's unlikely to be one who has already starred in several solo chapters, or who has had whole stories told from their point of view.

You already know how those characters tick. You've shared intimate moments with them. You've seen the world through their eyes and interpreted it in their mind.

Problematic characters generally haven't had that kind of quality time with you. The trick therefore is to bring them in out of the rain. Even if the chapter or passage never makes it into the final cut, go and write a story with them as the main person. It's even better if they're alone in the scene. Just you and your character, taking a walk in the park or whatever.

All of this gives an author the opportunity to see just who this character is. Without every other character around to distract you both, then it's like getting to know a new acquaintance, one on one. It will hopefully become apparent why they won't play ball, in those other scenes, when you're attempting to get them to act outside their nature.

By the time you get back to the main event, then you'll be able to write them into the scene much more easily.

Solution Three: Let Another Character Act as Mediator

If all communication has failed, then it just makes sense to ask a mutual friend to help facilitate the conversation.

Image: Silhouette woman pushing over the unknownDarren was seriously stubborn. I let him have his way, then I walked away. I wrote a scene from his point of view. He still ran rampant through my story, ripping up plots and making my other characters demand time out.

But I still had one last quick fix in my writer's arsenal. I had other characters, whom I knew well and who had some history with Darren too. I appealed to them for help.

Sedona had known Darren for a very long time. I know that she had, because I wrote early on a line which stated that she had. Mary had never seen him before in her life. So Mary asked Sedona what Darren was like. Sedona answered her. As the author behind Mary, I paid close attention. I took notes.

It was fabulous! For a whole scene, I could get behind Darren's eyes. I could write him with the narrative flow that renders any author thanking their muses in utter relief.  It was bordering upon drastic action. It was adding an element to my story, which was nothing to do with telling it, and everything to do with allowing me to be the one to do so.

If this trick works permanently, then even better. Unfortunately for me, Darren slipped out of my grasp in the very next scene. I couldn't have Sedona and Mary chatting forever. It was time to admit defeat and bring in the cavalry.

Solution Four: Bring on the Beta-Readers

The other people reading your tale are there as back-up for the author, in many more ways than one.

Image: Problem solving.Years of writing stories has taught me to embrace beta-readers. (By which I mean bear-hugs, in between bouts of prostrating myself in gratitude at their feet.)

These are the people who proof-read your work. They point out the typos, correct your dodgy grammar, help retain the continuity and get to say, 'Erm, what did you actually mean here? Because it's juvenile gibberish.'

All of this is the bread and butter. It keeps your work looking polished, so that the reading public are none the wiser that it was once all a bit flaky. But there are moments when beta-readers really come into their own. Moments like Darren in fact.

Only twice in my life has it come to this. Usually one of the previous solutions does the trick. But if they've failed, then the only recourse is to add a second, non-fictional mind into the mix. Be honest. Tell your beta-reader straight out that you don't know what you're doing.

(They will never admit it, but they've long since accepted their unspoken duties in calming your creative temperament. They'll be less surprised than you could comfortably imagine.)

The first time I had to call in someone to read a scene and tell me what had gone wrong, it turned out to be my fault. I thought I had stopped trying to be a control freak. I hadn't. I was trying to force my character into acting out of character. What can I say? I was young and needed the money.

In short, it was all the way back to solution number one. Really letting go was very rewarding. I got another twelve novels out of that previously unruly character.

Last night, Darren took me into my second ever major SOS. This time my beta-reader admitted that she was as lost as I was. She couldn't get her head around him either. That wasn't quite what I wanted to hear. But all was not lost.

"What kind of character do you think Darren is?" I asked. She pondered it and spoke aloud. We compared notes. She talked. I listened. I talked. She listened. Suddenly she said something which set a light-bulb off in my head. It illuminated Darren completely.  It showed that he hadn't been out of control at all. In fact, once you knew what he was up to, it was a delicious, quite fascinating story-line.

It turned out that I'd been trying to control him too much. Trust your characters, and remember rule number one: let them tell their story in their own way.

Funny how it always comes back to that.

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Updated: 05/15/2013, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 06/05/2013

Oooh! That's a really interesting solution! I can see how it would work. Thank you.

When I was writing fan-fiction, I did it the opposite way around. For the first 3 or 4 books, it was generally two characters, with occasional cameos. Then I suddenly brought in a cohort of about 13 temporary main characters. It was a tremendous change of pace, but can quickly become unwieldy.

I've never had the opportunity to do it in the opposite direction, as you just high-lighted.

Tolovaj on 06/05/2013

Here is my tip which is useful in most situations where character doesn't really fit for any reason, but writer (most writers are sentimental) still wants to keep at least part of the character or some of his characteristics (which are probably the reason to introduce the character in the first place).

Give these characteristics to another character. That has pros (adds depth) and cons (you will probably have to do some rewritings).

Example: Rumpelstiltskin (to many more known as Miller's daughter). We have four characters: miller, his daughter, king and Rumpelstiltskin. All have very clear functions and are pretty two dimensional. If, for some reason, we want to make a good drama of this story, we can for instance melt king and Rumpelstiltskin in one and miller and his daughter in other person. Now we have only two characters with much more depth and many possible situations to write real drama (or one powerful scene in a novel).

Reducing number of characters almost always leads to better results. I hope this helps somebody:)

JoHarrington on 06/05/2013

You're very welcome.

It's rare for this sort of thing to happen. I've been writing novels for years and it's only happened to me twice. I've been speaking with fellow author friends. It had happened to one of them once and never to any of the others.

It's very weird and highly frustrating when it does happen, though my experience* is that the character in question generally turns out to be amazing to write, when you get him/her. Only the most strong-willed, thus interesting, characters can spin out of control.

* Experience, in this instance, being two characters. Hardly a comprehensive data set. LOL

jptanabe on 06/05/2013

Love this! I've just started on my first novel and haven''t met an out of control character yet, but I'm sure I will. Now I have some tips on what to do when I meet him or her!

JoHarrington on 05/16/2013

I think I must have misled you a little. The scenario wouldn't play out, because the person doing the proof-reading waits until the story is well advanced. I give her the heads up when I know that the early chapters are set in stone. Put it this way, I'm currently writing chapter 36. My proof-reading beta-reader is correcting chapter 3. My cheer-leading betas are up with me on chapter 35.

I so hate re-writing scenes. :(

Sam on 05/16/2013

Jo, doing it by stages would save you all a lot of work. Imagine that your beta reader has already proofread a scene and perfected typos and grammar and later, after the novel is finished you re-read it and delete that scene because it doesn't fit in anymore. All the proof reading and correcting work for that part of your book is wasted. Some applies when you re-write scenes. SY

JoHarrington on 05/16/2013

It may be that I've got a different relation with my beta-readers. It's usually been a team of three of us. I'm responsible for producing the story. Then there are two other people. One keeps pace with my writing and does precisely what you've described. The other progresses more slowly, doing what I've described. Both are vital to my mind.

And I'm glad that you liked the article. :)

Sam on 05/16/2013

Great article as always, Jo! But I must say I disagree somewhat with this statement: "(betareaders)... are the people who proof-read your work. They point out the typos, correct your dodgy grammar, help retain the continuity and get to say, 'Erm, what did you actually mean here? Because it's juvenile gibberish.'"

Beta-reading for me is cheering the author on ;-) and pointing out major problems like plot holes, unexplained changes in hair color of characters ect. Typos and grammar is what comes later, at the proof reading and editing stage. I noticed also that I write better and don't lose the flow so easily if I turn the spellchecker off.

JoHarrington on 05/14/2013

Yay! I am quite partial to a little bit of vampiric inspiration. Good luck with it all.

JoHarrington on 05/14/2013

You most certainly do have a great beta-reader there! I detest rewrites with an absolute passion. I've been known to ditch an entire story, just because I needed to rewrite too much of it.

Fortunately, my main beta-reader knows precisely how to phrase things, so that it doesn't sound like a rewrite. She's as adept at dealing with me, as she is dealing with the literature. It always reads much more tightly after her recommendations are in place.

{{{{hugs}}}} re your rewrites. But it sounds like you will have something worth publishing at the other end of it!

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