Thursday, May 2, 2013

How Do You Know What Your Characters Should Do??

Well, it’s the last week in the semester here in the ivory tower!  Next week is finals week, which always overwhelms me more as a faculty member than it did as a student.  At any rate, I want to take a moment out of my grading to relay a bit of a conversation that I had with somebody.

You see, last week, a fellow struggling writer read my last post and e-mailed me.  The thrust of his e-mail was that he understood the need to, as I said in my blog, “stop thinking and just write.” However, he said that he had difficulty getting started because he never really knew what his characters “should do.”

Evidently, my reader doesn’t like to plot things out and is a “pantser” (as am I) and he feels overwhelmed by all the different things that his characters COULD do.  So when he sets up a situation, he can never decide whether his characters should do x, y, or z.  He freezes because he doesn’t know what the “best” course of action should be for the rest of the story. Action x could allow the characters to go down such-and-such a path, while action y allows the characters to develop a completely different way.  He asked me, “how do you choose what your characters do?”

This is an expanded version of my answer to him . . .

I told him that I don’t “choose” what my characters do.  My characters choose.

I know that sounds flippant, so let me explain.

As a writer, I view my role as being a kind of recorder.  I simply write down what I see my characters doing.  I don’t try to force them to react any particular way.  I don’t have any endgame in mind.  I simply put them in a situation and then sit back and watch the fun.

I believe my e-mailer has difficult doing this for one of three reasons.

The first is that he doesn’t let his characters go.  He doesn’t let them be who they want to be.  He wants them to do something (what that something is, he doesn’t know).  He isn’t willing to let them do what they want because he doesn’t know if it’ll be interesting and worthy of a story.

To this I say, everything is worth of a story.  Just make sure you have characters with conflicting desires or perspectives. Which leads me to the second issue that my e-mailer might be having . . .

I don’t think he knows his characters. 

This is probably going to sound crazy, but my characters feel real to me.  I can imagine what they would say to nearly any question.  I can picture them sitting around a dinner table bickering back and forth.  I can imagine them getting old or being young.  This degree of familiarity makes it so much easier for me to write about what they’d do in any given situation.  If they are walking in a forest and come to a three-way fork in the path, I know that Edmund would sit down and analyze each and every path. Pond Scum would throw a leaf up in the air and skip down whatever path it landed closest to.  Abby (a character in book two none of you have met yet) would leave the paths and start walking through the woods, because she doesn’t want to go anywhere other people have already been.

So the question thus arises . . . how did I get to know my characters so well?

And my answer is this--I honestly don’t know.  Maybe it’s because I daydream about them a lot in faculty meetings. Maybe it’s because, subconsciously, Edmund is largely me and Pond Scum is somebody else in my life. 

I don’t know. 

I do know that I get to know the characters better with each passing draft.  That’s where they really develop.  I might have a vague view of who they are in draft number one. But the view of the characters sharpen as I get into drafts three and four. 

Which leads me to the third issue that I think my wonderful e-mailer might be having . . .

He isn’t willing to re-write. Or more precisely, the thought of “re-writing” bothers him, as if he sees re-writing as a mark of failure. 

To this I say--you have to be willing to re-write sentences, scenes…the entire novel-length manuscript.  Even if the writing is BRILLIANT and a heavenly light shines down upon your computer screen, you still have to be willing to re-write it.  That’s what writing is!! It’s a process of re-writing. 

So my suggestions about deciding what your characters should do?

1. Get to know your characters.  How is up to you.  Maybe try therapy.

2. Allow your character to do what you think they would want to do.  

3.  If it doesn’t work, re-write the scene and have them do “y.” If that doesn’t work…keep re-writing.  Keep re-writing until everything fits.  However, their actions should be consistent with their personalities and past behaviors.  

At least, that’s what I think.  What do you think?


  1. Knowing your characters is the key, I think. That also means (and not only if one is a pantser) being willing to change what you were going to have them do if they come up to it and plant themselves like a balky horse in front of a jump. That's one sign a character is evolving...which is sort of the point, especially for a protagonist.

    1. Jeffrey!!! Yes, I agree completely. You can't do anything without knowing your characters...AND ALLOWING THEM TO EVOLVE! Like you said. I think too often we see a character a certain way and try to force him/her to keep being like that rather than allowing the character to develop and change.

      Good points!!

      Thanks for coming!:)

  2. I agree with you. When I start a chapter I usually only know what character(s) will be in it and one or two plot points that will happen. I try to think up a good way to begin the chapter, but after that point I sink into a zone where I essentially think as the character itself and wake up a couple hours later with a new chapter, one in which new characters may have arrived when I had no idea they would be there, and interesting new story threads have developed. I love that process, so I always wonder why I have such a hard time getting myself to sit down and do it again!

    1. Right! You just let the characters do what THEY want to do. I love that process as well.

      Thanks for stopping by, Ted. I hope all is well with you!

  3. For me, if a character doesn't want to do something, the scene just doesn't come out. It literally doesn't. My fingers stop, my mind fumbles with trying to get the character to do what I think s/he is going to do, when really, it's just not. S/he knows what s/he's doing. And if I try to force a scene, it means that's really not what the character did/said/thought, etc.

    My characters are alive to me, too. In my head. In the heads of my readers. Heck, they might even be alive somewhere in some alternate universe (my twelve-year-old son's a big believer in a multiverse). And they do what they do, say what they say. I'm just a "friend" and storyteller -- an active voice -- for them.

    1. KIMBERLY!!!!! I'm so glad you're as crazy as I am. Whenever I tell my family that my characters seem real to me, they give me concerned looks :)

      Talk with you soon on FB!