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August 11, 2011

How Do You Deal with Difficult Characters?

Man's hands bound by a strap

(Side note:  Do you know how troublesome it is to find a picture of someone bound and/or gagged that doesn’t look…well, inappropriate for this blog?  *snicker*)

Writers all know the type—the character who refuses to play by the rules, who doesn’t communicate with us, or who wants to be a scene-stealer.  These characters can drive us crazy with their antics.  Whether we’re drafting or editing, they interrupt our groove and mess up our word count.

I’ve experienced it all:

  • I’ve had the heroine who didn’t let me into her head at all.  (“What do you mean you’re not going to tell me why you did that?”)
  • I’ve had the heroine who was too embarrassed to describe an incident for a scene.  (“Come on, please tell me.  Pretty please with sugar on top?”)
  • I’ve had the hero who purposely revealed where the villain could find the heroine.  (“You did what?”)
  •  I’ve had the minor character hijack my brain until I agreed to share his story too.  (*sigh*  “Fine, you’re right.  It is a compelling tale.”)

(And in case you’re wondering, yes, the inside of my head really does sound like that.  I have an “interesting” relationship with my muse.  *smile*  See Do You Have a Muse? for proof.)

So how can we deal with these characters?  How can we get them—and us—back on track?

Approaches for Dealing with Difficult Characters

Here are some ways I’ve dealt with difficult characters.  Please share your ideas in the comments.

  • Ask Other Characters

When a character refused to tell me what happened in a scene, I found a witness (another character) who’d seen enough of the incident to give me something to go on.  Faced with the incriminating facts, she finally spilled her guts.  Often, we need only a hint for our muse to take the idea and run with it.

  • Brainstorm with Others

Ask family, friends, beta readers, or critique partners for their help.  Men can give a female writer insight into “the male mind” and vice versa.  Even without the whole scene and backstory information, other people might have ideas that can kick our muse into gear.

  • Listen to Our Characters

Maybe they’re being difficult for a reason.  Maybe they don’t like what we’re having them do, so they’re refusing to cooperate.  Often, “writer’s block” is nothing more than our subconscious telling us there’s a problem, and if we ask our characters for guidance, they’ll get us back on track.

  • Have Characters Interview Each Other

When a character won’t communicate with us, see if they’ll talk to someone else.  Have another character ask them what their issue is, or what they want and why.  This doesn’t have to be a written scene that will stay in the story, but even a mental interview might help.

  • Lie, er, Promise to Give Them What They Want

For my brain hijacker, I had to promise that he would be a recurring character in the series and a major-ish player in a future subplot.  He’s still gunning for a short story along the line, but I’m not guaranteeing anything.

  • Try It Their Way

If a character’s actions mess up the story, see how “their way” plays out.  Sometimes, they’ll come up with better plot complications than I could on my own.  But I’d advise giving them only one scene or so to prove themselves, as we don’t want to have to rewrite half the book for this experiment.

[Edited to add these suggestions from Shain Brown‘s comment:]

  • Try to Dream about the Character or Scene

This one has worked for me before as well, so I’m glad Shain reminded me of it.  Recently, I knew I needed to add more external conflict to a scene, so I told myself to come up with a solution while I slept.  When I woke, I had the answer.  Like magic.  *smile*

  • Free Write with a Different Medium

As Shain said below, “I pull out a spiral notebook, my favorite pen, and stretched out to write. I wrote about her and the story, but not necessarily anything in particular from the book.”

  • Rework the Plot Outline

Maybe our subconscious is trying to tell us something, like needing more conflict, or a different conflict.  Or maybe there’s more to a character’s backstory we haven’t uncovered yet.  Sometimes a planned subplot doesn’t fit.  Re-examining a plot outline can help with these problems.

Some of these approaches might work better for plotters, and some might work better for pantsers, but they’ve all helped me at some point.  Yet even with all those tools, I still have issues with my characters, so I’m eager to hear your ideas.

Do you have difficult characters?  How did you deal with them?  What made them difficult?  Have any of these methods worked for you?  Do you have other approaches to add to the list?

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Shain Brown

This one is subject that is particularly close to me right now. I am getting close to finishing a manuscript where I had the exact problem and she was all of those things. The worst problem was not telling me the story and as I struggle to write, but she would purposely deviate from the agreed on outline. Forcing me to do something that ruined the chapter. When I first realized we had an issue it was a slow burn everyday I wrote, getting 500 words was as easy as self extracting my own wisdom tooth. This was followed by my anger toward her, then it was desperation. I wanted to write the story but it wasn’t happening. It got to a point that I contemplated giving up the story entirely. Our ups and down continued like this for months. Had I been smarter, I would have pushed it to the side and done something else for a while, but I didn’t. By this time I was desperate, even resorting to try and dream about her, hoping she would further explain, but it didn’t work. I even tried my secret, which always works for me. I pull out a spiral notebook, my favorite pen, and stretchered out to write. I wrote about her and the story, but not necessarily anything in particular from the book. My final step was to go back and rework the outline for the entire story. By this point I knew I had done everything I…  — Read More »

Carradee

I’ve found that characters mainly get “difficult” when something isn’t working. Someone might’ve acted OOC two scenes ago, my next planned plot point might not fit as well as I’m thinking it will, or I might be trying to force an action that doesn’t make sense.

Tami Veldura

I agree Carradee, most of my character issues stem from a broken piece somewhere earlier in the story and that can be just as difficult to resolve.

But every now and then I’ll run across a recalcitrant character that simply refuses to tell me anything. Once I brainstormed out the most outrageous backstory I could think of because I knew the character had an accuracy/truth tic and would be unable to let it be 😀 She spilled everything quite freely after that.

Paul Anthony Shortt

My problem tends to be with characters surprising me by telling me things I didn’t know and reveal stuff I wasn’t prepared for. I try my best to roll with the punches. Of course, that could just be me using your “Do it their way” approach. It’s tricky when they really come out of left field, though!

Mary Kate Leahy
Mary Kate Leahy

I run a very autocratic regime and I don’t let the characters do what they want. Instead I force them to bend to my will *evil smirk*. Very good tips though, for the less heavy handed among us. Also so true about writer’s block. It’s usually because we know we messed something up somewhere and don’t want to deal with it/aren’t sure what it is. Really interesting post. Next time the characters rebel tell them it’s a dictatorship, not a democracy 🙂

Suzi McGowen

The problem I’m having right now, is whether or not to make a character deaf. He is still in the writing embryonic stage, so he can be deaf or not, but I need to decide soon.

I keep going back and forth about this, so I’ll try some of these ideas and see if they help. Thank you for sharing!

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[…] Difficult characters come in all shapes and sizes, and author Jami Gold shares ideas to get difficult characters back in line—or let them lead you to something even better than you planned! Characters often experience […]

Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc

Being a woman, I sometimes have trouble writing from the male perspective. Not always mind you. I curse like a sailor, can hit a softball over the fence, and wear underwear with holes in them from time to time, so I get some of their stereotypical quirks.
But occassionally I find myself wondering, hmm, how would my husband react to this or that.
Normally, just asking myself that question will resolve things, but when my male characters get really difficult I actually have to run the scenerio by my husband.
He’s a good sport…I’ve asked him everything from sex related questions to whether or not he thinks it’s masculine to scream on a roller coaster.
Plotting with my critique partners also helps. When I’m stuck, even if they’re stumped and can’t offer help, just talking it out with them gets my brain working. Usually, that’s all it takes.
Loved your approaches to dealing with difficult characters!
Have a great afternoon 🙂
Tamara

Roxanne Skelly
Roxanne Skelly

I had a character who was being a bit too opaque, and a bit cardboard. Probably bad as he was the main love interest. He simply wasn’t putting out, so to speak.

So, I sat down and wrote the synopsis of his story. More extensive than a basic character sheet, pretty much a full-on synopsis.

He was no longer an overly perfect incubus.

He became the child of a slave overseer in Charleston with a bit of an overactive libido, who fled to the Confederate army to escape the father of a sixteen year old girl he’d deflowered. He ended up in the battle of Fort Stevens in DC, got in somewhat of a life-threatening bind, and sold his soul to a demon out of cowardice.

Said demon used him to manipulate women for various nefarious purposes until the present day.

A much more interesting, imperfect character, and a lot more fun to write. If only I could get that Piedmont accent right. It’s rather sexy.

Sheila Seabrook

This is a very timely post, Jami, since this morning I was whining on twitter about stubborn characters. 🙂

I seem to have one in every book and it’ll alternate between the hero/heroine. Makes a writer want to commit murder and find someone more agreeable. But when you solve the issue, it’s pure magic, isn’t it?

I’ve tried a few of your idea with varying results but I absolutely love the first one: Ask Other Characters. Love, love, love this one and my muse is doing cartwheels.

Thanks for a great post and some super ideas!

Deri Ross
Deri Ross

I have a problem with all of my character trying to be too nice. Someone has to be the bad guy! LOL

Kimberly Montague

This is like a support group for my personal form of insanity. =) I just had a character who came waltzing into my head with an immediate name and description, and he would NOT leave. He kept jumping into scenes, stirring up trouble where I didn’t want it. He was a brat, and I fought him. Of course, it didn’t work. He wouldn’t stop, so finally I had to do like you said and “Try it their way.” Turns out he was leaking information to the bad guys all along. I had no idea. =)

I’m so glad to know I’m not the only one whose characters run the whole show. The odd thing is, when I was a kid, I never had an imaginary friend. You’d think I would have had twenty. =)

Katie Seth

Just found your blog through twitter. This is a great post, so I’m going to follow you now. 😀

I find character development fascinating and I wrote an essay about this kind of thing a while back.

I tend to use the interview technique to get to know my characters. The way I like to run it is as if they are all on some sort of quiz show where they have to answer questions in front of each other. What they don’t say is often more revealing than what they do say.

I’m very much a ‘make it up as I go’ kind of writer though, so my characters aren’t usually expected to do anything much before they do it.

Rae Carson

Jami,

Whenever my characters are being “difficult”, I try to collab w/other people (it doesn’t even have to be writers) about their viewpoint. Then I listen to music that would “fit” the character to get me in the right mindset. Thank you for this post! <3

~Rae

Fiona Ingram

In my second MG adventure (The Search for the Stone of Excalibur) I started with a great story but had no idea how the heroes would find the second ancient artifact in my series The Chronicles of the Stone. Went to bed, dreamed the whole scene and voila! there it was. Right near the end of the book a strange, annoying, very minor character with a major attitude appeared as I was typing, demanded to be heard, and ended up convincing me he will be very important as my book series continues. I said he could have a chance to prove himself. Now I am intrigued as to what he’ll do…

Anassa

My antagonist-narrator doesn’t describe anything and tends to answer questions in as few syllables as possible. A typical exchange:

“Where are you?”
“Forest.”
“What does the forest look like?”
“Trees. Dirt.”
“Anything else?”
“Why do you care? I don’t.”

Whereas the protagonist-narrator will go on for at least a paragraph about the species of tree, and the ferns, and the mushrooms, and the smells, and …. My antag is awesome, but he isn’t helpful. My current strategies for dealing with him are to find things in the scene he will talk about and get description in obliquely, and occasionally to corner my friends and make them brainstorm with me. It’s working so far…

Gene Lempp

I can’t think of any ways I deal with them other then is what is already listed, free writing is a big one for me. Put on a little Mozart and let my Muse and the character hang out together while I act as a quiet court reporter. Good times.

All my characters are difficult, by the way, I’d feel sorry for any woosie character trapped in my head 🙂

Thanks for the great tips and post Jami!

Stacy Green

Great tips, Jami. I have a secondary character I really need to work on. He’s just not right, and I’m trying to figure out how to make him click without taking up too much space in the book. Thanks!

Jamila Jamison
Jamila Jamison

This is a wonderful list of tips, Jami. In the past, I’ve experienced the side character who wants a bigger role (blasted demanding sorts, they are). I’m used to deal with them, I understand them, and so when they emerge, I usually sigh, “Oh, you again,” roll up my sleeves, and get to work.

This time, in one of my current WIPs, I’m being faced with the heroine who doesn’t want to talk about herself. This has NEVER happened to me before, and it’s really been driving me up a wall. One thing that I did to try and draw her out was switch the perspective from 3rd person to 1st person, which has produced some really interesting results. She’s got a mouth on her, apparently, whereas before she was giving me lots of polite (but disinterested) conversation. Your tip about switching mediums is one that I’ve been using as well. Free writing via pen and paper has helped to open up some pathways.

Emilia Quill

When I started my WIP I just wanted a story for a few chararacters that I
‘d drawn. Not a good start, the chacters weren’t human (fantasy story) I thought I’d be good to have a human protagonist. Problem was I hated her from the start and she loathed me.

When we got over hating each other I realised to my dread; she’s boring, especially when compared to the other main chacters. My boyfriend said that I should create life for her outside of the book *facepalm* I’d read an article of paper people and sworn not make one, yet there I was.
I followed my boyfriends advice, she got alot better. Then I realised, she’s a mage, why on earth or under it hasn’t she used magic?! She became alot cooler after becoming a wind mage.

I’ve had a character hijack the story. He was very interesting so I made him into the antagonist and have gotten wonderful scenes from the interaction between him and the protagonist.

I’ll have to try having my characters interview each other. it sounds interesting. Most I have already tried and found successful.

Susan Sipal

Jami, I really like the idea to let the characters have their way. If it’s going to be their story, we ought to explore it from their POV. Also loved the point from Shain of dreaming out the sequence. I LOVE getting ideas from my dreams and even wrote a whole book based on one! 🙂

One other thing that helps me hear my characters when I’m stuck is taking time away. It seems to me that the shower or the car really work best for opening up their lips. Maybe because they know that in these two particular places I can’t write down what I’m hearing!

What a perverse muse I have. 🙂

Thanks for a great post!

David

I used to face TONS of “writer’s block” in my writing past. Luckily, I have overcome that with some other solutions that aren’t related to your post here. However, I came up with a “checklist” of sorts for dealing with writer’s block in an external fashion. That’s here: http://chambernaut.hubpages.com/hub/tear-down-the-wall

But when it comes to difficult characters, yes. Those are so troublesome. I’ve had characters who wouldn’t tell me what their story was, I’ve had characters not want to reveal their reasoning or purpose. In my past inexperience, I merely resorted to pistol-whipping the characters until they spilled the goods. It was mental war, of sorts. A bit painful and frustrating at times. I even had near-full backstories written for these characters and I still had trouble.

I even have had the dread *gasp* MARY-SUES!!!! Yeah, I was severely amateur. I’m currently dealing with a protagonist who is having a hard time expressing his main character flaw. It’s not exactly a “strong” or “noticeable” flaw…but it IS the flaw that drives the WHOLE story and sets this brave young man on his journey. So I’m currently in negotiations with this boy to figure out how we’re going to show off his faults to the world properly.

Love your blog!
– David

Jemi Fraser

When my characters are being stubborn and refusing to cooperate, I usually figure out (eventually!) that I’ve been pushing them in the wrong direction. Once I let them have a bit of free rein, things usually go better 🙂

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[…] How do you Deal with Difficult Characters? Jami Gold explores this topic as well as What Wrong Turns Have You Made? (because sometimes it is the author that is the difficult character *smile*). […]

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