We’ve all struggled with that character–you know the one–the one that won’t behave according to the plot. Much like the picky eater at the dinner table, none of the scenes you’ve dreamed up in plotting seem to bring out anything but the worst in this character, and not in a good way. You can get behind an appallingly-behaved character for a number of reasons, but this isn’t that fascinating-like-a-train-wreck bad behavior. This is that drag-your-feet-and-whine behavior that makes a 38 year old character seem 8 years old. Otherwise known as the, “you don’t really want to be in this book now, do you?” behavior.
Characters Out Of Character
Picture this–you’ve lovingly crafted a deep and engaging character profile for one of your mains, complete with history, old wounds, flaws, strengths, and those all-important quirks. You’ve even given them a sequel-bait sibling or best friend to make it easier and more tempting to flesh out their lives. Then you drop ’em into the first scene of your story–the all-important, critical scene that starts off the plot–and they drag their feet and toe the sand and whine, “Ida wanna.” They act in completely different-from-expected ways, that are not only outside your plan range, but kind of assholey, too. You can’t work with this!
Thing is, you may have mistaken them for someone else. Drop them into a scene and see how they react. I know, especially if you’re a plotter, that this may go against the idea of doing all your prework so that the actual story writing is much easier, but tell yourself this is prework, too. A sort of dry-run or an audition. Just as you wouldn’t cast an actor for a part without seeing the audition first, you wouldn’t cast your mains in a part without a “screen test” on your writing software screen. Judge not a man by his words on your character profile sheet or notecard or whatever, but by his actions in your test scenes.
Characters Who Don’t Belong
Your characters might be dragging their feet because this is not their story. And it can be devastating, I know, to realize that your hero is really your villain and your sidekick is really the hero. But believe me–and hundreds of other writers who’ve been there–it’s better to find out before you’ve written hundreds of thousands of words and built a story around a hero who’s kind of a dick and forced yourself to abandon those wonderful scenes where your sidekick comes through better than the d-bag hero.
Get your characters to justify their existence and their role in your story with a little tough love. Write or script out Mr. or Ms. Troubles suffering an explicit or absurd death. Make it over the top if you have to. Make it final. Or if you can’t bring yourself to write something worthy of Oscar Bait or a soap opera, set up that character’s final exit from the story in some other way. Put them on a plane to Patagonia with a stolen bag full of drug money (so that later, if you have to, you can have that money’s rightful owner show up and End Them for you). Send them on a safari to Borneo and give them Dengue Fever. Do you feel light or relieved when you’re writing this? If so, you may have identified your problem…and exactly how to solve it.
Troublesome characters are usually a sign that you need to dig deeper and ask the hard questions about your characters. Sometimes it’s a case of getting out of the way of your muse and letting whatever bubbles up express itself. Other times, it’s up to you to pin it down and question it until it squirms. Pick at it, poke at it, ask those questions it’s trying to distract you from asking. Eventually, you and your characters will be glad you did–you’ll get your answers, and your characters won’t have to act out in protest of being mis-cast.