Why Characters Get Out of Hand and Understanding Them Better



by Destine Williams


It’s only 8:20 AM and the battlefield is quiet.

A lone tumbleweed rolls across the barren land just like a blockbuster western, but today you’re not here to stop and smell the cliches.

Today you are here to fight.

The only ones left in the resistance are you, your editor, a handful of beta readers, and Joe, but Joe’s Wednesday schedule is sketchy so he might have to leave early.

And it’s all of you (Joe being tentative) versus your novel.

You survey the land quietly. The wind kicks up dust and in the wake of it you see something moving. You squint.

What is that?

You step forward, but your editor blocks you with an arm. Then she raises her rifle. “Don’t go near it. That’s a main character.”

A main character? Your main character?

Joe looks just as terrified as you do, but that could be because he has a meeting at 2:30.

But as the dust clears, the grotesque thing coming toward you looks nothing like your main character. It crawls with one arm. One eye is blue from the explosion of page 33. Its back is disfigured from lack of development. It mutters in nonstop unrealistic dialogue.

And its not alone.

A whole army of wild undeveloped characters are behind it.

The apocalypse has come.

Just kidding no it hasn’t. You’re probably fine.

But all dystopian jokes aside, the scenario above does happen on a less dramatic scale. Sometimes, we’re in the middle of writing a scene and envisioning what happens when our imaginations throw us a complete screwball.

We think that they want bacon and eggs for breakfast, but really they just want to oogle the waitress at the bar. We think that they’re the most selfish scumbag on the face of the planet and then they throw themselves into a burning building to save a child. We think that we know them inside and out, then they do something else to show us that we don’t.

And it can be frustrating if you have no idea what’s going on.

This frustration usually comes from having strict expectations not being met aka having a strong chokehold on your book, or, on the other side of the spectrum, having no clue  what to do at all.

But understanding why this happens takes a little bit of theory so let me explain…


1.) Stories Are About Change, Characters Are Agents Of Change And Respond To It Accordingly

Unless you’re writing something metaphysical and bizarre, your characters have human qualities. Doesn’t matter if your MC is a cat. Doesn’t matter if it’s an alien from Riptar. Doesn’t matter if you try to be 100% objective (which is not possible). If it talks it’s human-like. If it thinks, it’s human-like. If it feels, it’s human-like.

And humans are not static. We change our minds as we age. We adjust our habits as calamity barrels into our living rooms in the form of the Kool-aid Man.

Thinking a character will behave the same way throughout a story is sketchy at best. Machines do that. Machines have to be updated or preprogrammed to do different things.

Characters make pretty damn awful machines. They’re too organic. They change without your direct programming.

And here’s why…


2.) The Best Place To Get To Know A Character Is In A Scene

I have to give props to The Art of Character by David Colbert. He’s part of the reason why I’ve abandoned my character charts and lists in favor of Character Sketches.

The Art Of Character advocates to always imagine your characters as part of scenes. This is because a scene, assuming you haven’t committed it to anything yet, is just like a natural story environment. Your character has to show up fully formed and do something they have to develop their own inner code of conduct right then and there. It’s a total sink or swim situation.

And a character in a scene will sink or swim very fast.

A list or a chart, while very helpful, is just that: a list of disembodied elements. Disembodied elements do not translate well on the page unless you can imagine them in scenes. Your MC’s foot fetish will probably not (and should not) show up you can give it some significance in a scene.

And this is where we often get stumped because our ducks looked like they were lined in a row from the outside, but because we only see the character responding to their part in the scene we don’t get what “suddenly changed”.

Which brings me to my next point…


3.) The Next Best Place To Get To Know A Character Is In Their Backstory

You might be wondering why this isn’t the best place. You also might be wondering if I’m advocating you to consider shoeing in some backstory for your WIP.


That sounds a little extreme so let me put it in better terms…

Backstory, for the most part, is, and should be, just for your knowledge. You keep it in the back of your mind like the pipes that run under your house. You don’t run around asking us to look at the rust that’s probably been sitting there since the Civil War.

Now, of course that doesn’t mean don’t use it. There’s a time, place, and a creative use for everything, but most of the time, we don’t need a flashback.

But you do need to know what your character has been through so that you understand what a character will most likely do.


4.) But Know That Characters Will Canoodle Anyway… Even If You’re Prepared

And being surprised isn’t a bad thing. It’s a good thing.

After all…

No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.




Destine Williams is the author of Vicissitude: Yang Side (Lost Earth), musician of its official soundtrack, and the founder of The Zen Zone where she gives tips and tricks to help out fellow writers. If you are interested in more posts like this, check out more here.

Image source – Pixabay License.



10 thoughts on “Why Characters Get Out of Hand and Understanding Them Better

  1. It can be frustrating when your characters head in their own direction, but frankly, that’s what well developed characters do. If they do something out of character, there should be a good reason why and the folks that know them really should be asking about said reason. And even if it does take you off the rails, you’ll often find the story is better for it.


  2. Excellent post and very uplifting… Makes me feel a whole lot better about my recent work
    I’ve just finished a book and the third re-write was tremendous fun, because on that third run through the characters took over.
    The romance element broke out but not the way I had planned and the characters allegorically looked out of the page at me and said ‘You’re surprised? Have you been reading the narrative or what?’.
    One of the lesser characters came to me throughout the days and said ‘So I’m the comic foil mostly, but read the narrative I just have to go out in an selfless way, it just begs it. C’mon give me a break I know I can do it!’- so I let the guy have his way- he did good!
    And one of the villains kept whispering to me:
    ‘Nah mate. I can do it better than that, trust me. Have I let you down so far?’
    After 20 + years best writing experience so far!


  3. I think that change may be one of my favorite parts of writing. It’s almost as if you are truly getting to know a new friend (or foe…those darn aliens from Riptar) each time a new character develops. Sure, it can be pesky when they decide to go off on a tangent and ruin a carefully-constructed scene by doing their own thing. But it’s also pretty darn cool to watch them grow. Thanks for the interesting read with me coffee this morning!


  4. My characters surprise me all the time. I think it’s less important when they throw you for a loop as how you handle the change of direction.


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