When a Character Won’t Do What You Want by Dellani Oakes

My husband thinks I’m crazy. This is nothing new. We’ve been married almost 31 years and he’s been sure most of that time that I’m out of my mind. That’s okay. I accept that. Ever since I started writing full time, he’s become more convinced that I’m even crazier than he previously thought. I can’t imagine what makes him think this, but I suspect it’s conversations like this.

“He’s doing it again.”

“Who’s doing what again? Is one of the boys misbehaving? I’ll jerk a knot in his tail.”

“No, it’s not the boys. It’s Manuel.”

“Who’s Manuel? The kid next door?”

“No, that’s not Manuel! You know, Manuel! In my book!”

“Manuel. In your book.” He’s starting to give me that look and take a step or two away.

“Yes, you know. He’s not behaving again.”

“Ookay…” He takes another step or two back. “What’s he doing?” He puts a piece of large furniture between me and him.

“He won’t be bad!”

He takes a dubious sip of coffee, moving another step away. “Ookay…. Are you sure you’re alright? You’re starting to look a little wild eyed.”

“I’m fine! Pay attention! He won’t be bad! I’ve tried to make him the villain and he simply refuses to misbehave! I’m going to have to make him the hero! He’s messing it all up. Oh, and Gabriella? She won’t fall in love with anyone else. I’ve given her two other choices and she wants him. What am I going to do?”

“I dunno. Let her?”

“What? Are you out of your mind? That messes it all up! I’ll have to write a totally different book now. I don’t get it. They just won’t behave like they’re supposed to.”

“Honey, they’re characters.”

“So? I know that!”

“Darling,” he says in a very calm and soothing voice. “You made them up.”

“SO??? They won’t behave! I should just kill them all off and start over! I am so frustrated!”

By this time I’m looking for things to throw and he’s beating a hasty retreat to his garage sanctum for a couple of cigarettes and a cup of coffee. It’s cold out there, but it’s safe. He stays there until he thinks the manic phase has ended and comes back in, keeping a very low profile as he skulks to his computer.

I swear, I’m not crazy. It does happen, characters take over and won’t cooperate. They will refuse to go the direction I want if I take them down a road they wouldn’t follow. The second I try to do something with them that’s out of character, they stop dead in their tracks, the story grinds to a halt and nothing moves until I go back through and correct it. I can’t tell you the countless numbers of times this has happened. With my NaNoWriMo novel this year, I’ve had to cut over 11,000 words because I kept getting off track. I’m still not sure I like where it’s going, but the characters seem more comfortable, so I guess I’m stuck with it.

As crazy as this might sound, you have to keep in mind that characters that are well developed do take on a personality. As a writer, you get a feel for where they will or won’t go, what they will accept and what they would refuse to do. Like real people, they have their stubborn moments, but usually only when the writer tries to push them in the wrong direction. The example conversation is based on a real one I had (more than once) with my husband about my novel, Indian Summer.

Manuel, the hero, was intended to be the villain, driving Gabriella into the arms of Sailfish. Well, he refused to give her up. Instead, he changed his wicked ways and became the man she would love and marry. Did I intend that? Not a lick of it. Would Gabriella accept another man? No. She wanted Manuel. Once I accepted this and let them go their own way, the story grew and I moved on to compensate.

A writer has to stay flexible. The minute you get too rigid, the story is going in the toilet. Keep it fluid, malleable. Don’t get so locked into what you want that you can’t see the big picture. Maybe your instincts as a writer are what is guiding those rebellious characters. Part of you sees that the direction is wrong and tries to correct it. Whatever is the case, try to look at the character rebellion in a positive light. Look at the story from an objective point of view – and don’t throw things at your spouse, it really isn’t his (her) fault.

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4 thoughts on “When a Character Won’t Do What You Want by Dellani Oakes

  1. Your husband’s reaction made me laugh. I’ve often been in situations where the story grinds to a halt. It used to frustrate/confuse me, but I think it’s my brain’s way of telling me, “This isn’t how the characters would act”. Sitting down and considering the story more realistically and listening to my characters has helped. ^^

  2. Oh god! So true! I love it and hate it when characters get a mind of their own. I have a secondary character, supposed to be a walk-on/walk-off type thing, who is shoving his way onto the main stage and let it be known in no uncertain terms that I’ll be writing a story about him next, thank you very much!

    • Jessica, I had to promise the secondary character, Sailfish, in Indian Summer that I’d write him his own novel because he kept trying to misbehave.

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