Have you ever had trouble writing a character in a story because they want to go in a different direction? Have you struggled to make them fit into an idea that you have—only to be met by resistance? Did you spend days, weeks or even months trying to get past a particularly rough spot?
If your answer is yes to any of these questions; know that you are not alone.
The good news is there are ways to work with your character and push through the story until you find yourself back on the right track and chugging along, full-steam ahead. I have complied this list after repeatedly running into the same issue with one of my main characters, Emily—the most stubborn character I have ever written.
Take a Break
Get up out of your chair, stretch and grab a cup of coffee or tea, or even a snack. You could even wander around your house looking at pictures on the wall or book covers on your shelf, anything to give your eyes and mind a break from intensely focusing on your characters.
My suggestion is to stay away from your phone or the television. You don’t want to get sucked into social media, games or a TV show. Besides, your eyes need a break from the bright digital screen of your computer. It doesn’t seem like much, but it is usually just what I need to jump-start the next bout of ideas.
Do something else that you enjoy, which will take you away from your writing conflicts for a reasonably short period of time. I normally walk away expecting to spend twenty to thirty minutes wrapped up in something else.
One of my favorite ways to change things up and distract myself, is to sing. I approach singing much the same was as I do writing.
I love the feeling of warming up my voice. It kind of reminds me of setting the stage for a scene in my stories. And then the gradual building of the strength. In a story, this would be the meat and potatoes. (Personally, my favorite part) And then you start weaving emotion into your songs, feeling each dip and rise; climbing ever higher toward the pivotal moment, the moment when the ground beneath your feet gives out and all you can do is belt out every ounce emotion that you’ve kept bottled up inside. This portion reminds me of the apex of a scene that is intended to awe, terrify, reveal, ect.
Going for a short walk is also great way to refocus. You are able to get some exercise in while (hopefully) working out problems with a particular character or scene. Another way you could distract yourself is by doing some housework, or you could even make some phone calls that you’ve been meaning to make—but have been putting off.
Don’t be afraid to get creative with your time!
Find the Origin of the Problem
Where is the root of the problem with your character in that particular scene? Where did your story start to get away from you? What was the last scene that you were able to write freely without forcing the words to come? Trace your scenes back to the beginning of your struggles. Don’t get sucked into the specific problem in the dialogue, or descriptions. Look at the bigger picture first and then you can begin to worry about the the smaller details.
Once you figure out where the big picture problem is, then you can start following the smaller detailed threads back. The more you practice this, the quicker you will begin to get at picking out problems that are not always obvious at first glance. As you move backwards in the story, you will be able to put your finger on the exact spot that is root problem that is tripping you up.
Now, comes the hard part of figuring out what else does your character want to do, and why.
In my up-and-coming novel, I tried super hard to make my main character go to a special school. The kind of school where she would fit in better than at a public school. But, Emily absolutely refused. No matter how many different ways I approached it, how many notes I made for myself, she would not budge. She even turned away from really interesting shape-shifter, magic, and what-nots. (I can’t go into too much detail—just in case)
For awhile, I was really upset about it. So upset, I put the book away for weeks because I could not move forward in the story. But when I finally picked it up again, I decided to go back and find the Origin of the Problem, and work my way forward from there.
You have to keep in mind; each character in your story is complex and brings something new and exciting. The more time you spend exploring these characters and their environment, the more firmly that character roots itself in your mind. As the writer, you have designed this world, its rules and the people in them from the bottom up. (Way to go!!!)
With each edit you peel back another layer of your characters and sometimes you discover strange or wonderful things that you did not know about before. Their background, desires, passions solidify in your mind. But that is the most amazing part of the journey! If you do not feel a deep connection with your characters; your readers will certainly lack the bond as well.
In the end, I learned to stop trying to control the character, and I feel that my stories are better because of it.
I am lucky enough to have a few people that are willing to let me bend their ear when I run into problems with a character that is not cooperating or struggling with plotting a scene. (I can’t tell you how many countless hours I’ve spent on the phone with my mom, just trying to get past another stubborn rebellion from dear Emily. Thanks Ma!)
Is there anyone you know who would be willing to just sit back and listen to a problem your having with your characters? Perhaps they can even give you helpful advice and steer you in the right—or at least a better—direction.
For me; I’ve found that typically the answer will just magically appear as your talking it out and hearing what you are saying.
This step is similar to the previous one. Let’s say you have called all of your usual sounding board people, but they are too busy, or you can’t get a hold of them and you just can’t put your work away until you finish this scene. Pull out a recorder and go to town.
The good news is, with technology these days a voice recorder is probably within arms reach since nearly all smart phones, and tablets have this feature built in. If you feel silly talking to yourself, pretend that your on the phone with one of the people you usually go to in these situations. I’ve used mine quite a bit, and it still amazes me how much it picks up and how clear the playback sounds.
Skip the Section
If you have tried all previous steps, and you are still stuck between a rock and a hard place, then I suggest just skipping the scene or chapter. You can return to work out the kinks a few scenes later when you have gotten a good handle on it again.
If your worried that you will mess up the whole story because you skipped a scene or even a chapter, don’t! I promise, it will still be waiting for you when you decide to return to it.
In Emily’s book, I got so hung up on editing issues with Chapter 10, I did not make any forward progress for months. Finally, beyond frustrated, I just moved on to Chapter 11, which quickly propelled me into Chapter 12. When I reached Chapter 13, I realized that I then needed to return to Chapter 10 so I would have critical information I needed to work with moving forward. When I went back to ten, it was smooth sailing because I already knew which direction I was headed in, and I just needed to help everything align with the scenes that I had just written.
Change Your Perspective
Sometimes, it helps to look at your character or scene from a completely different light. On a really bad day, move furniture around and sit down in (what feels like a) new environment. If you are in bed writing, grab a chair and place it somewhere in the room that you have never sat before.
My favorite way to change things up is to just lay on the floor. It usually takes awhile to stop giggling at the strangeness of laying on the floor and feeling like a kid again. But, once you get over that you can move on to chewing the problem over in your mind with (hopefully) a new way of looking at the scene.
Write or Draw the Problem
This rule is very similar to the last one. It all leads back to changing your perspective of the problem of the character or scene.
If you are writing along, and then all of the sudden you hit a wall because of a difficult character or scene, try numbering down a page and write one sentence to study the sequence of events in note-taking form. You could also do things like make a graph, draw some brainstorming bubbles, or anything else that is just not inside of your current work-in-progress document.
I tend to either take down notes of that chapter, make a graph or draw a little thumbnail of the scene. It all helps me pull away from the story enough to really analyze the story and see exactly what my characters are doing. From my notes I can usually pick out points that could be improved upon, or changed entirely; and the same rules apply for the line graphs I draw.
Sometimes, I just need to feel like I am apart of the scene to get in touch with the problem. Like if for some reason I can’t ‘feel it’ the way I usually do, and I know that lack of depth is transferring into the story, and then my readers will not feel it either.
In those cases; I draw it. Whether it is a tiny 1″x 1″ messy thumbnail image with little detail, used only for bigger picture problems; or an 8 1/2″ x 11″ complex drawing with every detail I can think of to see exactly where the problem could be.
Don’t worry about how perfect your notes, graph or drawings are. No one will ever see them but you. I don’t tend to throw them away afterward because they help me re-engage with my characters once it’s time to return for editing. But, keep in mind; if they bother you that much afterwards—then by all means—toss them in the trash.
Try A New Experience
One of my favorite ways to release the frustration of a difficult character is by just going to try something new. I look in the local paper, or on the web and see what events or places there are to explore in my area.
It does not matter where you go, or for how long. Just relax and enjoy yourself. Is there a restaurant that you noticed but have not checked out yet? How about an event at your local library? Did the fair come to visit your town this week. Have you visited the local go kart track or mini golf course? It sounds like now is the perfect time to check them out.
Meet New People
While you are exploring new places, you will have the opportunity to meet new people. Make sure you actually talk to people when you go out in public, even if you are typically a shy person. Talking to new people will grant you access to new conversations that are different than any other conversation you’ve ever had.
Take advantage of it!
You never know. You could meet someone and during the course of the conversation, you could be inspired by something they have said, and want to put it into your current story. Or maybe you will see something and you will want to design a character around an interesting mannerisms or speech pattern. Who knows, they might give you an idea that is so grand, it inspires an entire book.
But, you’ll never know unless you get out there and talk to people…
Let It Simmer
This is usually the very last step I would recommend. It’s really hard to just put the story away, and I’ve found that once you do put it away, it can be really hard to pick it back up. But, this is exactly what I am proposing if none of the other steps work for you.
Lock it away in your filing cabinet, download it to a thumb-drive, do whatever you have to do to hide it away for a length of time, and leave it be. (This probably will not work for you if you are on a deadline. In that case; I would suggest revisiting all previous steps.)
And then, go to work on other projects, and while your doing that occasionally chew over the sequestered story in your mind, and begin the process of working out the problem without overwhelming yourself.
I hope that some of these tips will help you with your difficult character. I know I have struggled through my fair share of long nights trying to make a character to do what I wanted them to do, and no matter how hard I tried, they just refused to cooperate with me. We were at a stalemate with no respite in sight.
So, now I’m curious…
Has anyone else ever run across a difficult character to write or work with in the editing stage? Were they stubborn as my dear Emily is? Or were there some other reasons that they were giving you problems? I would love to hear about it!
Leave a comment below, and feel free to follow me on Twitter or Facebook.