Oh, the horror of that moment, when you know exactly what should be happening next in your story, but it’s clear that your character has other ideas. Some of us like to keep a tight rein on our characters and stay in control of the plot at all times, while others prefer to let the characters run the show and develop the plot as they go. Both approaches are equally valid – as is everything in between – and at the Writers’ Café we’re big fans of doing what works for you. But regardless of where you sit on that spectrum, there aren’t many writers who haven’t at some point watched in dismay as their characters start acting up on the page and doing things they really shouldn’t.
As with so many things in writing, there isn’t necessarily one ‘right’ way to deal with a misbehaving character. There are a number different approaches you can take – it’s just a question of finding the approach that works best for you. Here are some of our top tips on what to do when you find yourself in that situation.
Ellie says: I’m a total planner when it comes to writing – my outlines are so detailed that I’ve been told they look like other people’s first drafts. As a result, it’s pretty rare that my characters step out of line, but it has been known to happen! I generally delete the misbehaviour as soon as it occurs – though if I like it too much to get rid of it outright, I’ll cut and paste it into a separate document to save for later. Then I’ll write out a series of step-by-step bullet points about what, according to my plan, needs to happen next, and re-write the scene, closely following the bullet points as a guide.
Julie says: The polar opposite of that approach would be to let your character go crazy and misbehave to their fictional heart’s content. It may not be what you planned, but sometimes that’s how writing works. Try and enjoy the complexity that ensues! Taking your cues from your character can create complications and unexpected twists that make your plot denser and more satisfactory than you could have anticipated. It turns out that sometimes the characters have better ideas than the author! (Or maybe it’s the author’s subconscious having better ideas than the author’s conscious brain.)
Paul says: My advice would be to take this issue off the page for a while. Open a separate document, and write out an internal monologue for your character, to explore their wants, needs and motivations in the moment. As the author, you are in control of your story, but in order to write it with authority, you need to know your characters intimately and on a very deep level, and this exercise helps you to do just that. Once you’ve got a good understanding of what’s going through your character’s mind, you can return to the scene and re-write it more successfully – whether it’s in line with your original plan or in line with your character’s plans.