I love writing characters. Creating new people from inside my head is my favorite part of writing stories. Then I’m not encumbered by that pesky thing called reality, and can let my writer brain run wild.
My current work in progress has a large cast of characters aside from my protagonist. Each one has a unique personality, and important parts to play in my novel’s world. This is probably why I ran into trouble.
During a round of revision some of my characters started acting out. They were saying things they shouldn’t say, and doing things that didn’t make sense with the rest of the story. I got so frustrated that at one point I started shouting at my laptop telling them that if they didn’t start behaving I was going to delete them permanently. That’ll get you some odd looks if you do it in public.
Finally, I realized that if I wanted to get my novel back on track I was going to have to meet my characters all over again. When you find you’ve lost that magical ability to jump inside your characters’ heads, like I did, try some of these field tested strategies to get back in sync with them.
1) Creat a Character Sketch
Even if you’re the worst artist ever (a title you’ll have to fight me for) it doesn’t hurt to draw what your character looks like. They may come out looking like a humanoid figure a two year old made out of silly putty (mine did anyway), but if you draw her you’ll have a tangible representation of your character, making it easier to describe her on the page. Then you can return to the comfort zone of writing. On your sketch, write an outline of sorts about only your character: her physical description, why she looks the way she does, personality traits, why she is this way. Write every relationship she’s ever had. Let your writer brain take over and create enough of a new person that this character could have her own novel. You’ll be surprised what you learn.
2) Talk it Out
You know the advice about reading aloud your novel to catch things that need work? Well the same holds true when a character starts confusing you. When you write a character, you’re already having a dialogue with yourself. Having the same dialogue out loud can help get you and your character back on track. Use that wonderful imagination of yours and pop your difficult character out of your head for a chat. Ask him questions, and then answer them. Perhaps he has a different role in the story than you realized at first, or maybe he needs to be pushed to the background a little more. And if anyone should overhear your conversation and ask you what you’re doing with a worried expression, simply respond:
“I’m just talking with Anthony about how a supporting character is supposed to work.” Then return to your conversation.
3) Put Your Character in a Weird Situation
Sometimes the only way to figure things out is take your character out of her story, plop her into a situation that would never occur in your novel and see how she reacts. For this, I suggest using a writing prompt, such as the one my writing group used that helped me work out my character’s motivations. Simply start a story with, “And the horse came back alone.” Set a timer for fifteen minutes and take your persnickety character, write up a weird situation, and see what happens. You’ll get a fresh perspective on your character and, armed with new knowledge, your characters will once again be making sense in your novel.
4) Take a Day in the Life
This takes talking it out to a whole new level. Sometimes to get inside the head of a character, you need to actually be that character. So take a day, or half of one, and pretend that you are your character. To the best of your ability, act as them, answer questions as them, and respond to things in the same manner they would. Even if you’re writing a fantasy or science-fiction story (as I am) you can still act as your character. Remember the imagination that helped you make that world in the first place? Use it again, but this time instead of creating a world on paper, create it in your surroundings. If you have a writing group, you can even do this as an event where everyone comes as their character. It’s great fun and helpful too.
5) Explain Your Character to Someone Else
Find a willing person to allow you to give him or her a lecture on a pesky character that only exists in your mind. Getting another writer to do this is usually easier, but you can probably get a family member or close friend to sit through a fake biography too. Explain everything you know about your character, and what he is doing now that doesn’t make sense to you. Then let your listener ask any questions they may have about your character. If you find you’re unable to answer a question you may have found why your character has become difficult. Having someone who is not engrossed in your novel can give some much needed perspective. He or she may see the problem clear as day where you would have trudged along for months trying to work it out.
Characters are fun to create and play with, but sometimes they take deep introspective work to understand. Characters are who your reader connects with and, more often than not, why they continue to come back to your work again and again. Take the time to meet and re-meet your characters, and soon you’ll be jumping inside their heads so easily writing them will be as natural as speaking.
Marielle Orff is a freelance writer, audio editor, and podcast producer from Phoenixville, Pennsylvania. She is the producer for DIY MFA Radio, as well as the Web Mistress for DIY MFA. In her free time she creates stories of science-fiction and fantasy for young adults while drinking mountains of coffee. To connect with Marielle check out her website at marielleorff.com.