Control your Characters

I am an ex-member of several writing clubs, but I have given up on trying to comment on individual writers as they seem to have a proclivity to take offense.  Perhaps, it’s my fault; I am a bit too blunt.  At any rate, I decided to stop and began blogging.

When you’ve been doing something for a sufficient amount of time, the lessons that you learn can be come so ingrained and fundamental that you sometimes forget how you arrived at that ‘aha’ moment.  I don’t proclaim to be an expert, but after Tag-Surfing around WP, I’ve read several blogs by different writers, complaining about similar problems—the problem being that they lose control of their story.

When I first began writing, I’d start with a plot and set off for The End.  Inevitably, I’d come to the point where I, too, lost control of the story and my characters simply would not do what I wanted them to do.  (This statement sounds absurd to a non-writer, but to those of us who attempt prose, I’m sure that it has that distinctive ring of truth.)

The disaster begins with your characters.  If you have a character that will not do or say what you want, then fire them without delay.  Pink slip them, can them, chop their heads off and be brutal about it.

Naturally, it is much easier to choose the right character in the first place.  We’ve all read that story where a character reacts in an unbelievable fashion; we’ve all watched that cop show where the 98 pound anorexic bimbo, who looks like her bones would break if you blew on her real hard, takes down a 250 hulk.  Double yuck-a-roo! It won’t wash in literature. It’s lame.

If your character is going to morph in the course of your story, you will have to take the reader firmly by the hand and coax them into belief.  And give yourself double points if you allow for a chink in their personalities that hints at the ability to change.  After dreaming up your plot, the next critical step in writing is choosing your actors.  Choose well, and the story will write itself.  With the right cast you can not go wrong.


To recap: If your fictional character, Bob, is going to run over small animals for sport, then you’d better dream up a real A-hole.  If your slutty girl is going to become a nun, then you should start with a reluctant tramp.


Special Note about evil characters: Good characters and good deeds are easily accepted by the reader.  However, evil characters require a little more explanation and backstory.  The above mentioned Evil Bob, for instance, would be unbelievable without some personal history that included:  early child abuse, head trauma, or a bizarre but conveyable anger or fear of small creatures.


So, if you’re writing a novel, you’d better have some comprehensive interviews with all your stars, and don’t forget that you are the boss.  Get to know them better than you know your own momma, before you hire them.


As an example, here are my notes on my characters in Suing a Deity:

Jane (POV): timid, plain but not ugly, 38, thin, easy going, follower, frightened, humiliated, jumpy, despairing, desperate.

Paul: playboy, good-looking, chauvinistic, career orientated, dark, egotistical, educated, boor, un-gallant, self-centered.

Aphrodite: Stamped (stamped means the character’s personality is already preconceived in the general public, and I dare not alter that too much) disinterested, aloof, cool, unspeaking.

Judge: Old, fat, judicious, bored.

Bailiff: skinny, wimp, peripheral, peepy, nervous, no aspirations, no self-delusions

F. Lee Bailey: Stamped, dead, moldy, winner, commanding, creepy but charming.

Crowd of men: angry with Jane, dopey around the goddess.

Crowd of women: snoopy, gossiping.


Special Note:  Show, don’t tell. You will note that even though I took the time to create these lists of adjective for my cast, I did not actually use many of these adjectives in the story.  For instance, I did not tell the reader that Paul was a self-centered, chauvinistic pig; instead, I tried to convey that by his actions and dialogue. I did not say that the judge was bored; instead, I had him prop his chin in his hand and make general waving motions.  I did not say F. Lee Bailey was charming, but I gave him all the jokes.



7 thoughts on “Control your Characters

  1. I’ve never met a character that was unruly, but I’ve been rigorous in coaxing my Muse to do all the character-prep way before she turns them over to me…

    I did have a character in my WIP who I thought was minor and only useful in the first scene (Morna, the AI). She did convince me she needed to be passed down through the generations and that she could help explain other characters’ motivations. No argument on my part; she helped me solve a problem 🙂

  2. My first NaNo novel has a character who, I realized, long after the fact, comes off as the stereotypical evil scientist. Thank goodness, I didn’t try to work on it again until I had a couple more novels under my belt. I’m about to revise that beginner’s work and reveal which normally laudable human characteristics turned to the dark side.

    • Good luck. I find it very hard to rework some of my beginning pieces–bleck! Sometimes, I will cut and paste some of the better passages into a new piece, but mostly I just go: weak, bland, boring, crap, delete.

  3. It’s pretty obviously a beginner’s book, but reading it over, more than a year late, I’m still excited about the plot and characters. Now I can see its weaknesses, and I think I can make it good. But I do have a few partly developed early ones that will probably get the delete button.

  4. To be honest, I kind of like it when my characters don’t behave the way I want. In my experience, it usually happens when my subconscious has been brooding over a problem with the plot, and it’s using the voice and personality of my characters to tell me I’m about to do something stupid. 🙂

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