When Your Characters Won’t Behave



Have you ever thought to yourself that your characters are in charge, and not you?

I once heard an interview where an author discussed his characters as if they were the ones with the quill in hand, so to speak. He went on to discuss how the characters would occasionally hijack the story and move it where they felt like. He’s not the first to discuss it this way.

To be honest, when I first heard that, I thought it was absolutely ridiculous. The characters are the clay; they are the entities being created. They have no control or power.

Truthfully, I still feel that way, but at least now I have an understanding of what they were referring to. When people talk about the characters grabbing control of the plot, they really mean (or should mean) something else. The characters aren’t grabbing control, it’s probably the writer trying to put something where it doesn’t fit.

When we create these characters, we instill in them things like goals, aspirations, quirks, personality traits, ambitions, and fears. If we create these facets strongly enough, it will stick with us for the rest of the book/story. Now, imagine that we try to make the characters do something that is out of context with the fabric of their make-up (that is, without proper set-up or foreshadowing). What will happen? Our own creative mind will nag at us. That is often taken in the form of the characters trying to wrestle back their more appropriate actions within the plot.

I contend that it’s not the characters doing anything. It’s when you try to pull something that doesn’t quite fit. Why might you do this? Perhaps because you’re stuck in the plot, and you need the character to do something that doesn’t feel right in order to get un-stuck. That’s lazy writing at the sacrifice of your characters. No wonder they “rebel.”

If my characters had actual cognizant thoughts, they would plainly understand who is in control of the story. The late Robert Jordan (an amazing writer) once said, “I created these characters, and I am an Old Testament God with my fist in the middle of their lives.” I wholeheartedly agree when it comes to my own writing. The characters don’t wrestle away anything. They’re just along for the ride.


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41 thoughts on “When Your Characters Won’t Behave

  1. John Scalzi’s Redshirts details this beautifully. I tend to work intuitively with them. I know enough to make them consistent but sometimes an action or a point doesn’t feel right and I go with something else instead which turns out to be better than what I had originally planned.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. I guess I’m struggling with static characters. Just when should they “grow”? At what points do they need to change? I assumed change came at the “Dark Night of the Soul” part. That ended up frustrating my beta readers! Any thoughts would be a help.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. While you may be correct as to where the source of unease comes from in these situations, I think the way of thinking Jordan espoused (or at least the particular quote) is pretty destructive. If the inner conceit of the characters rebelling makes for an excellent mental warning device for a writer, teaching them to be dictatorial and ignore those impulses (as any good Old Testament arse of a god would do) instills the wrong habits in them.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I get your point, and largely agree. But (there’s always a but isn’t there!) there are moments when you’re writing and a character says/does something and when you later read it back your first thought is ‘where did that come from, I didn’t write that.’ Still in complete control of the character, but their voice surprises you. Just a thought.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Love this one. Usually with me, it’s not the characters that have control, it’s the plot line itself, and I am just the medium for the plot to “speak”. I can tell when things are going good, because everything flows smoothly, and the story is so tightly woven you can’t pick a single thread out of it. But when things go wrong? Ugh! ::Shudders:: That’s when I try to take a turn for a visible destination, and the plot doesn’t agree. Or, even more fun – the PLOT takes a turn for Abaline, and I’m trying to head for New York. (figuratively, of course)

    That’s when things start unravelling and falling apart. Usually, the first indication for me that things are wrong is a proliferation of characters. If there is only supposed to be a case of, say, five characters I suddenly have thirty to keep up with. If I can catch it in time, I can usually go back and correct the issue. But, I have had one work get so far out of agreement with me I finally had to abandon the project. Now, I’m a little more aware of the warning signs, which has allowed me to keep things on track for this project attempt.

    I hadn’t ever heard of characters trying to “take over”, thanks for the post. Raising awareness of possible issues is a good thing!

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Now if I could just find the steering wheel on the WIP I’m chewing on. It’s taken a turn I didn’t want to take just yet, and I’m stuck trying to work us out of the morass we’re in. But, it’s still a fun adventure, and though I’d have preferred not to dip into these waters, I’m learning a ton about the story.

        Glad I could offer an idea or two to help.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Well written and argued, as always. I think that there’s a common situation that could be viewed a bit more charitably, which is that writers are constantly told to fully flesh out their characters before they start writing – how would they think, how would they act, how would they react, and so on.

    Once you’ve done that, it’s becomes very easy for new twists to come to mind that will take the plot in entirely unexpected directions. Often these can be better and more interesting than the originally conceived plot line. When that happens, the writer has two choices: stick to the original plan, or see if there’s an even better book to write than they originally imagined. And metaphorically, it’s also easy to feel “hijacked” by one’s own characters.

    To my mind, that’s an opportunity rather than a problem, although it certainly can upset the apple cart for awhile.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. Funny, I was thinking about this when I woke up this morning. I’m going to both agree and disagree with you.
    For me, this is writer’s block. I’ve never been left unable to write something on the page, but I occasionally end up not being able to write the correct thing on the page. For me the characters are alive and do run off on their own. Sometimes it’s great and sometimes it’s terrible.
    I’m a visual type person, so for me I ‘see’ the scene in my mind then try to paint it with words. So regardless of whether ‘technically’ the characters are arguing with me, my mind sees them that way.
    I’ve just finished chapter 1 of my new book and one of my main characters (Wendy – a precocious little 12 year old) was giving me the ‘evil eye’. I knew she was upset, more specifically, upset with me. I ignored her and continued on to the end of the chapter, knowing that my subconscious was unhappy with something and he/she would let me know about what, once he/she had figured things out.
    So just after waking this morning it came to me. Wendy was always the ‘bizarre fact’ person and was emotional, but not unstable. In chapter 1 someone else came up with the bizarre (but important) fact and she was painted as unstable.
    An hour’s worth of revision and all my characters will sleep well tonight.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Because I’m a painter, too, I imagine (working on my first story) that characters will partly take over, or something will happen, where you have to let go and let it happen, at least for a while, as it happens with painting: you have a direction and imagine an end result, but it never turns out quite that way, because as you create your painting, you are in dialog with yourself, listening to twists and turns happening for your painting (different color, different brushstroke, etc.)

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I talk about the ‘story twisting’, but you hit the nail neatly on the head. Usually, when this happens to me, I am trying to get a character to do something that is completely out of step with how I designed them. I find other ways to move the plot along.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Like the discussion. I think I must be a bit ‘method’. I feel that the characters occupy different parts of me where they push and prod until their personality arrives. From then on while I have some control – I can always say no – I feel that it is I who is along for the ride.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. lol. Our minds and imaginations are complex, wonderful things that defy logic and understanding. Each of us must learn to interact with our-self, but how we do that must be as varied as we ourselves are. It’s not even a matter of ‘best’, just a matter of us keeping what little of our sanity remains.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I love this post, I’ve been trying to kill off one of my characters for about two weeks and couldn’t bring myself to do it. Finally, last night I managed to write the death scene. I was very fond of him and he’s been with me for two books, it was like he was refusing to go, lol. I’m in mourning now but at least I can get on with the story. Thanks for stopping by my blog, I’m delighted to have found yours.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I agree with the late Jordan. The only control my characters have is indirect. In other words, I have created them and every aspect of their personality to where their reaction to any situation is predictable (by me only). As a result, it forces me to stay true to who they are. I can’t change them any more than I can change a real person. To change one would be to create a whole new character.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I’ve never heard someone describe characters this way. I’ve always heard of authors talking about their characters speaking to them and then getting angry when they don’t work well, but it is obviously our conscious working. I like the way you phrased this. Our characters cannot possibly be acting out. It is our brain that is trying to tell us that something is wrong. Whether that be they need to rebel or not, we need to take a step back and figure out what we are really writing. I do believe that your characters can talk to you and I prefer this method of writing, but when you really look deep into it, it is just your conscious working hard to create the character that you need to write that the character begins to fill your thoughts and possibly your actions.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. My wip began with the intention of a single book and a clear, but limited story. I was pantsing at the time. I had quite a few characters, one of which was just a walk on. It’s not that she took over so much, as I began to like her, and as I didn’t have a firm plan, she (via my subconscious) became more and more part of the story. She didn’t take over so much as she became more important and visible. By the end of the first draft, the story told by the book hadn’t changed, but it included an important subplot in which this character was almost on a par with the protagonist. So, when basic editing of the first draft was done, my vision of the story scope had widened, a lot. The book morphed into a trilogy, with the book (now in the revision phase) becoming book one of that trilogy. The walkon character of book one became the protagonist of book two. Not because she took over, but I recognized how I could use her to create something that was much more than my initial vision. I now have a clear trilogy story arc in which she plays an important part. The protagonist of book three is the same as in book one, and she is a main character. The point is, that the characters are your creation and you are in control. Nevertheless, the real story may lie under the surface, and it just might be one of your characters who steer you toward it.

    Liked by 3 people

  15. like your blog, like you style, tricky question (rhetorical?): what if the characters ARE real, and you have to fictionalize them a bit and make them do something they’d never do in real life? i worry about deceiving readers yet i can’t find another way to incorporate essential persona’s without trampling them (confidentiality)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the comment, Emily.
      Whether or not your characters are based on real people or not, they are a fictional version of them. As you’ve said, you’ve fictionalized them, so your concern is no longer with the real people they are anchored to as much as the characters you’ve fictionalized them to be now.
      I would advice for your intent to be based on who they are now, not the real people they were at one time based on.
      On a side note, you can make character go in a direction they wouldn’t otherwise IF you set it up right with some sort of process. A dramatic event, or a desperate situation in a person’s life for example can bring someone to take a new path. With the right set-up, you can have characters do new things. It’s just all about if it’s set up properly.

      I hope that’s answered your question (at least from my perspective). Thanks for reading!


  16. Maybe the author didn’t have the best wording there but I wouldn’t say the concept is ridiculous. It’s as you say really: it’s the image we have drawn of the character that makes us feel that way… Still, I couldn’t help but picture my main character rolling his eyes at me and telling me ‘I ain’t saying that!’ when I wrote a piece of dialogue that didn’t fit him.


    1. I would say that we both have the best wording for our own personal experiences. If you said that you feel that characters have full control of a story, then there’s really no way one can discredit that, because it’s how you personally feel on the subject. That would be like my saying that it’s wrong for people to write without an outline.

      The beauty of creative writing is that it is so subjective, and everyone has a different take on it.

      To be fair, I did mellow that out a bit after mentioning a little later in the post that I see some of where people with your viewpoint are coming from. It’s simply two different standpoints, and neither are incorrect. : )

      Thanks for reading, larosesemsem!


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