When your characters won’t behave themselves

They did what?!

Non-writers don’t seem to understand the associated joy and frustration attached to character development when penning a novel. They tend to look at you funny when you’re explaining how your latest characters aren’t doing exactly what you want. You can come across as slightly insane:

Ever feel like this?
Ever feel like this?

“So, I’m at that critical point and now I discover [insert character name here] isn’t doing what I thought she would,” you tell your friend, family member or long-suffering partner.

Okay,” they reply. “But you’re writing the book, right?”

Well, someone else didn’t just write the last 50,000 words for me, you think, in your most pained, struggling author fashion. Cue loud sigh and hours of stewing silently over your characters current situation while outsiders roll their eyes at you.

Character development is key

It might sound obvious, but revisiting your characters can help you get to the heart of the issue. In my experience, here are a few of the main reasons characters do unexpected things (the list is by no means exhaustive, just my experience):

  • You’re a pantser. Yes, yes, I know. Us plotters (of which I am predominantly one) sit on our high horses, don’t we? Fact is, whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, characters may still do unexpected things. It happens more if you’re a pantser, though – there I said it! If this is the case, you may need to go back and work on your character outlines further (if you have one, ahem) to discover what is currently missing.
  • You’re a plotter. Alright. I’ll admit, there are some downfalls of being a plotter. Like the ability to get your novel out of your head and on to paper, being one of them. You can’t control everything, okay? Sometimes you just have to let go and sit and write and see where it takes you. If it takes you into uncharted territory perhaps you need to rethink your original (and no doubt, copious) plotting notes. Maybe it’s time to throw them out altogether and start again! Can’t handle that? Then do a quick reassessment and do not – I repeat, DO NOT – spend hours pouring over your notes. Get back on the horse and keep writing.
  • There was more potential than you first realised. This happened in my first novel. A character involved in my sub-plot decided to get involved with another of my characters. It was all very thrilling and heart-stopping while it was happening, but when I eventually sat back and reflected on things, I realised it had happened because I’d originally underestimated my character’s potential. If the scenario you are currently facing falls into this category, don’t distress – it’s exciting! You might just need to go back and rethink some of your original character outline so you can ensure their journey is in keeping with the bigger picture (if you have one that is!)
  • You overestimated them. Sadly, the character you had high hopes for just seems dead on the page and isn’t going anywhere. Now you need to take stock and ask yourself why. Is it because you didn’t put in enough groundwork at the beginning, or is it because they are truly not necessary to your story? It’s a hard choice, but sometimes imaginary heads may have to roll…

And then, sometimes, characters do just change

One of the most satisfying aspects about writing is those times when events and characters unfold on the page before you, like you are merely a conduit for their story. Maybe some of your best writing happens this way. Then the dust settles after this wild act of creationism when you throw caution to the wind and just let the words flow and you realise something – your character has changed!

You can rant, rave and possibly even sulk for a while, and then do one of two things:

  • Alter events. Re-work your plot so it’s more in line with the development of your characters. Or,
  • Beat your character into submission. Revisit their earlier actions, compare it to what you had originally envisioned for them and go back and rewrite.

Neither option is particularly fun, I’ll admit. Still, I’m happy to suffer through the tough times because the moments when everything flows and you’re along for the ride with your characters more than makes up for it.

Come over to the dark side…

And no, that doesn’t make me a pantser. Just saying.

How about you? Do your characters misbehave from time to time and what measures do you take to beat them into submission? Or do you just go with the flow?

5 Replies to “When your characters won’t behave themselves”

  1. I love when my characters decide to do things I hadn’t even thought about! That is a great feeling. Thanks for this great post, Belinda!

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