When Your Characters Won’t Behave


by Ryan Lanz


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.




Ryan Lanz is an avid blogger and author of The Idea Factory: 1,000 Story Ideas and Writing Prompts to Find Your Next Bestseller. You can also find him on Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr.

Image courtesy of R. Nial Bradshaw via Flickr, Creative Commons.

19 thoughts on “When Your Characters Won’t Behave

  1. I have encountered a different experience, perhaps because I am writing memoir. This is what happens…sometimes my fingers take over and just write the story for me. I need to think very little. It is like it is bursting forth. Other times, because I believe my siblings may be sensitive to my writing, due to their bad/strange/inappropriate behaviour in the story, I find it labourious to write the story and it comes out jagged.
    Thank you for your post.


  2. A new phenom for me. I’ve had dreams about my main character but cannot.. just cannot figure out how to put that episode in the story. I’m a bit spooked. If I ignore her, will it become a nightmare??? 😳


  3. A good argument for the writer having control, which I respect.
    However in my own Fantasy work I rely on mine to be ‘out of control’ as the world they inhabit both physical, political and military have these uncertainties within them


  4. Ah…we have been found out…we writers blame our characters for what we do, but honesty, they really do take control, their personality demands it sometimes. As though, that I, misread the character I was building, so, there it is…still the author’s problem!! Thank you for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thought provoking post. While I agree that it is always the author writing the words, as a writer I do follow my characters and follow their stories, which often leads in a direction I hadn’t planned. I see myself as providing a framework for the characters to play and explore. I can structure out a completely straightforward plot, and the character creates a twist that I have to figure out how to reconcile. Though I think this could all just be a difference in creative process and semantics.


  6. As a fellow writer and avid roleplayer, I’ve known for years…We do not control the characters, not really, hehe; they will do whatever they want. And we’re sometimes left staring at our screen or piece of paper or notebook. “Wait, I did not want you to do this!”

    And you can just bet that, from that virtual world of imagination they live in, our characters are giving us the most mischievous smirk imaginable. “You thought you were in charge of me, weren’t you?LOL!” 😉


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