When Characters Won’t Behave #amwriting

Some writers feel that their characters are autonomous; they speak and act on their own, and the author just follows them around and writes things down.

I’m not one of them.

Yes, your characters have to seem to be autonomous. Your characters have to seem to speak and act spontaneously, out of their own inner realities. But I see myself as more of a director than a biographer.

If I need for a character to say something or do something and the character — in my imagination, now, they don’t actually speak to me; I may be odd, but I’m not a practitioner of alternate sanity …. I lost my place. Oh, yeah: If I need for a character to say something or do something and the character is all like, “I just don’t feel that. What’s my motivation?” then I’m all like, “Fair enough. Let’s talk about that.”

See, I don’t like pushy characters (with the obvious exception of Bud Blossom), but I don’t like sock puppets, either: characters who obviously speak and act at the writer’s will. You know the kind where you go, “I can see why the author wanted her to steal the secret code and plans, but I don’t understand why she wanted to.”

So, when characters don’t want to say or do what you want them to, you have choices:

  • Give ’em their heads and see where they take you
  • Get out the cattle prod and herd ’em back in line
  • Sit down with ’em and yak around until you come up with reasons that make sense in their contexts
  • Get all evil wit’ it and plant false memories so they believe they have motive.

By which I actually mean, tweak their backstory. That’s one reason I like to leave backstory a bit vague, so I can fill it in as I need it. Also lazy.

CHARACTER: “But I’m not afraid of dogs! I love dogs!”

ME: “You don’t love … um … red dogs. Yeah, see this dog is red. ‘Member when that red dog knocked you down and bit you on the chin when you were two?”

CHARACTER: “…No, I don’t.”

ME: “Blocked it out. That’s how traumatic it was.”

CHARACTER: “Oh, yeah. Big red dogs. I always cried when the teacher read a CLIFFORD book.”

ME: “Right. Right. So sad. Poor baby. Ready for the scene, now?”

I believe Alicia will say that she works out the backstory, characters, and plotlines ahead of time, so she doesn’t run into this sort of thing. Her work is brilliant, so it obviously works for her. Me, that much planning doesn’t work for. Neither does just going with the flow. Not a plotter, not a pantser, I call myself a panther. I outline enough to get me through the story, but leave things loosey-goosey enough that, if something more interesting than what I have planned comes along, I can pounce on it like a hungry panther.

Oh, and Bud? It’s the cattle prod and the cow dogs for Bud. YES, I’M TALKING ABOUT YOU AGAIN. YOU ALWAYS MANAGE, DON’T YOU?

~sigh~ It isn’t easy being me.

A WRITING PROMPT FOR YOU: Someone defies your character’s reasonable expectations.



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I was born in Louisville, Kentucky, but now live in the woods in southern Indiana. Though I only write fiction, I love to read non-fiction. The more I learn about this world, the more fantastic I see it is.

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One thought on “When Characters Won’t Behave #amwriting

  1. Dan Antion

    January 30, 2017 at 7:44am

    Awwww, Maddie’s sad now. She’s a (not so) big red dog and she’s never hurt anyone (that she remembers, or on purpose, or not while trying to give them a kiss that she’s sure they needed). I don’t write much in the way of fiction, but I do let the voices in my head loose on some SoCS prompts, and I find them very hard to control. Cattle prod, you say? Hmmm.

    Permalink  ⋅ Reply
    • Author

      Marian Allen

      January 30, 2017 at 8:12am

      Aw, now, Maddie isn’t big enough to scare my character. If it still makes her feel bad, I’ll make him scared of badgers or crazed woodpeckers or something. That’s the beauty of being the kind of writer I am: I control my characters’ backstory, so their autonomy grows out of what I put into it. Free will with benefits.

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  2. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt

    January 30, 2017 at 6:19pm

    Being pre-emptive, eh? Hehe.

    I know – I talk too much. But if I had to go through that every time my brain finally came on (this being sick(er) has thrown me for lots of loops), I’d never get anywhere!

    What I do is maybe a bit different: I wait until ALL the marks the actors are going to have to hit have been worked out by the director (me) before I write much about what they will actually say. Bits and pieces there, sometimes a bit from the rough draft, and those all go into the beats in about the right order before I get started actually writing a scene.

    Then we basically do it improv, in one or two takes, tweak a tiny bit if I(they)’ve used the same word too many times – and we’re done.

    If you saw how fast a scene goes onece the background work was done, you’d wonder why it takes me so freaking long to write!

    I’ve been working on the first scene of a chapter SINCE DEC. 2nd. I’ve also been coughing, sick, under pressure from a host of things having nothing to do with writing.

    I was hoping to actually WRITE it today. Not yet – maybe tomorrow.

    All those people living in my head going ‘but, but, but…’ – not my characters, my crew of researchers. When even they are satisfied we can’t stuff anything else into this scene. Sigh.

    Your way is much better. Cleave to it. Love that word.

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    • Author

      Marian Allen

      January 31, 2017 at 2:33pm

      You do not either talk too much! lol! As for my way being better, you know what I always say is the best way of all: whatever works!

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