Characters – Square Pegs For Round Holes

(or what to do when characters don’t want to fit the roles you intended for them)

As a member of several writing groups on Google+, I often see some very interesting posts, which pose questions such as: What if your intended hero doesn’t seem to want to fill the role?

This was the question that arose, after reading a post from Hen House Publishing on the General Discussion board of the Fantasy Writers group. I sat there for a while before sending my response to the post, since I’ve had problems with characters not fitting the roles I had intended for them. Since my response went up, I’ve thought even more about it, and formulated the following thoughts on the matter.

As A writer, how much control do you really have?

This to me has become a very important question lately, and has lead to a lot of soul searching. I’m one of those writers who is at heart, a pantser. I will sit at the keyboard, without a definitive plan in my head, and just type of an extended period of time, hoping to produce something that will make sense during editing.

This approach has lead to some of my favorite character defining moments, and way too many surprises.

When I first started putting serious work into my fiction writing, I was  trying to get a feel for the kinds of stories I had inside me, and the characters were more barely aspects of my own personality. Over several years of NaNoWriMo, I get plugging away at the same project, and the restarted the novel a number of times. Every time I would find new characters that wanted attention, familiar characters that wanted to go hide, and then there were the characters that mutated out of all recognition.

Two years ago, I started creating character profiles, in an attempt to nail down the aspects of the cast that I wanted to keep, or develop. And that worked for a while. Then I started trying to use the information to help outline my plot, in the hopes that I would have a road map to work from while writing. I’m sorry to say, that’s when the rebellion started.

what about those characters who insist on going against your plans?

At first, my characters did some very interesting things, which I felt would add to the story, and then the surprises started. My main character, even without letting me write a single word of my first draft, quit his job. Now I had a problem. this wasn’t supposed to have happened so early in the planning phase of the project. More importantly, it wasn’t supposed to happen at all. All thoughts I had for developing him, and his relationships with his co-workers, were thrown out the window, and hit by a rather huge truck.

The plot development was literally derailed, but the action felt so right for the character, that I couldn’t just force him back into line. To deny him the right to quit, was denying the character the right to have any say in his destiny. I just couldn’t force myself to re-write that part of the plot. Nor could I take this initially round peg, now a square peg, and jam him back into the original round hole I’d created for him.

So, I had to resolve some problems, before I could move forward:

  • Do I take this character, and completely rebuild his personality, and beliefs, so that he is more in tune with the intended plot?
  • Do I rewrite the plot, and allow the character to dictate events?
  • Do I drop such a strong willed character in favor of someone more inclined to follow the plan?

who wins the debate?

This particular character has provided me with some valuable insights into who he really is, beneath the shell I created around him. Thanks to having taken the time to write some short stories about this character, I am know a little more confident in where my plot will be going. I also have a better understanding of why he quit, and how he will react to the fall-out from that action.

This round goes to the rebellious character. But I am not ready to quit the fight yet. The next time he acts up, I’m digging the trenches and declaring war… maybe.

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