18

There are definite advantages to writing comprehensive character maps, but one downside that I've found is that when a character is fully fleshed out, she/he tries to take on a life of her/his own and sometimes this can be to the detriment of the story that I have carefully plotted.

When a character in my (my, gosh-darned it!) story wants to do one thing and I want her/him to do something else, how should I handle the situation?

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    Just let it happen and find out where it goes :) – Totumus Maximus May 23 '18 at 12:45
26

Taking a life of their own is exactly what your characters should be doing. They should have enough of a "character" that a reader can predict how they would act in a given situation. That's what makes the characters "come alive" for the reader.

Consequently, a reader can easily spot when a character is acting "out of character". And it is extremely jarring. When I read such passages, I feel the author forced the character to do something they never would. From this moment on, as far as I'm concerned, the story lacks integrity, I have lost my trust in the writer, I no longer enjoy the story.

So how do you proceed? You've got two choices.

  1. Scratch the scenes you've planned. See what the character would do, and where he would lead you, how the story would proceed. That's more of a "discovery writing" approach.
  2. Consider what would make your character act in the way you've planned for them, end up in the situation where you want them to be. Add that to the story. That's a more "planned" approach.

Most likely you'd be using some mix of the two, that would eventually satisfy you. Most importantly, however, Don't bludgeon your character into acting "out of character". Don't make them fall in love with a person they'd never fall for, don't make them say things they never would - keep the truth of who the character is.

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    This is a beautiful answer, and I couldn't say it better. From having this happen once to myself, I was shocked and dismayed...for about ten minutes. Then I realized how much better this made the overall story and was happy. – atroon May 23 '18 at 17:47
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    I agree, as a writer its your job to throw scenarios at your characters and then work out how they'd react – Liath May 24 '18 at 10:32
7

Change one of your givens. Either change the plot to fit the character or change the character to fit the plot. It depends on which one is more important to you.

  • Why do the top answers generally get more Upvotes than the questions? I don't get behaviour on this site yet, @Lauren. sigh – robertcday May 24 '18 at 15:23
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    Because the answers are more useful and more valuable to other people than the question (which is not to say that the questions aren't important). – JustAnotherSoul May 24 '18 at 18:22
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    @user31385 I upvoted your question, if that helps. :) – Lauren Ipsum May 24 '18 at 18:35
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    @robertcday Voting the answers also allows you to see the crowd-sourced 'best' answer (which may not be the best answer for you.) If 100 people think "Characters should be in charge" and 2 people think "the author should wrench the characters where the author needs them" then you have a sense of what 102 different brains believe. This is useful since you are presumably writing to be read by other brains. I've occasionally been convinced I was wrong through this sort of math. – DPT Jun 3 '18 at 17:13
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    LOLs I up-voted your question. @robertcday I personally think the reward system on SE is a mixed bag at best, but everyone is different. – DPT Jun 3 '18 at 18:13
7

That's a thing I read often about on Twitter from colleagues. The most common approach is: Let your character do what he wants. There is a reason that your character developed this way and make way for a very interessting approach on your story. Maybe the way your character takes on situations is way more statisfying than your approach.

The other approach is to force the characters in your story. The major problem in that approach is: The characters tend to seem out of character. The reader can't relate to the made decision, cause it seems off. Like an actor, who plays a role and starts to smirk a bit.

You see: There are 2 approaches, but the first one is my personal favourite, cause a story lives with it's characters and it is better to fit the story around them. But what you do is totally your decision in the end

  • As an add I could say: Describe a simple storyline, where your character does what he does and look where it leads. Maybe it is not so far off from your planned plot or better – Pawana May 23 '18 at 12:46
5

I'll only add to ask yourself if the characters are trying to do things that are tropes. Analyze your story for this.

My main male character kept trying to fall in love with the first female he met. I finally allowed him to, and I later realized the reason it seemed so predestined is because ... that dynamic is a 'thing' that happens in many stories.

If you don't want your characters falling in love (for example), you can preempt it by having something beforehand that eliminates that tension. I could make my character married, or involved, or asexual.

4

The more you flesh out your characters, the less of a personality margin you leave for the decisions they make. For this reason, plot-driven stories tend to spend less time on characters and more on other parts of the story; the world, the plot twist later on, etc. Alternatively, you have character-driven stories, sometimes taken to the extreme, where the world is created, the plot elements placed, and the characters started off, and the story naturally evolves.

Often, you want a character that grows naturally, hints at all the things that would make them react a certain way. People can relate to a character that they understand. When someone acts irrationally, only people used to irrationality can understand them. This can be a subtle hint, maybe simply their gruff personality is enough to suggest a bad past with people.

A cheap method of making characters act a certain way is unsaid, pre-existing events. While you can sometimes work around a drastic change of character behaviour (e.g. with a traumatic memory surfacing up and usually calm character loses it), it will seem to be added in rather than a pre-existing condition. And that's when immersion breaks: readers start to not understand the character.

Alternatively, a reasonably safe choice is unpredictable events:

Alice leaves Bob amicably then many months later, in their next scene, they're betraying Bob - if Alice never explains why, it will feel forced to the reader. In contrast, if Alice met Charlie during those months, who on their deathbed fed Alice a pack of lies about Bob... then why Charlie lied may need explaining, but why they're a liar doesn't need explaining. So Charlie remains little more than something to move the plot, yet readers don't mind his unpredictable effect on the plot because without a full personality, he's unpredictable.

But this can't happen for any character you want the reader to relate to, because the reader will no longer understand them without a personality.

For things that aren't changes, but new elements... then you have three things that can divert a plot instantly without explanation: animals, crowds, and voice recognition software.

"Ok Google, call Alice."

"Calling Aleesa."

4

My personal opinion is, don't make that mistake. I consider that similar to "world building disease". It is one reason I am a discovery writer, I first failed as a plodder.

The error is that it is too difficult to devise the perfect "personality" for a tightly constrained problem (an over-specific plot). You are better of with neither of those, the whole point of writing is to make the plot real and plausible and the characters real and plausible, and that is going to take 300 to 500 pages: No outline can possibly do that justice.

Thus if you feel like you must plot, the outline must necessarily be vague; and the turning points it makes must be applicable even if your character develops their own personality. So, for example, you can devise a good twist, or a surprise ending. If I were writing a romance, I would probably have a good idea when I began what causes the "all is lost" breakup moment, or the major crisis.

If you are going to plot heavily, keep your characters vague so they can do what must be done to accomplish the plot. When they cannot, that can only mean you have a conflict in your plot: Points A and B cannot be accomplished by the same personality. For an extreme example, at A they show mercy to an adult stranger, at B they have to shoot through a child.

If you are going to characterize heavily, set your characters loose to do what they want, they just need a driving trait of not giving up.

Without a plot, you can't get to a point where the characters cannot execute it; they make their own decisions and that's it. The plot will pop out as a result of writing their story (although you might have to backtrack and have them make different decisions that are still within their character, if the first decision you thought of them making leads you down a rabbit hole).

As others have said, you want your characters to take on a life of their own. Don't make the mistake of straight jacketing yourself on both characters and plot. It is a recipe for failure, as you have learned. In the process of writing, you need wiggle room for one or the other, and we can produce good stories with lots of wiggle room for both: Stephen King is 100% discovery and one of the top selling authors of all time.

3

When I took Theory of Literature back in the stone age, we learned a hallmark of good literature is the character doesn't act out of character. So go with the character and use other methods to move the story in the direction you want it to go.

1

It seems to me that your story is over-plotted and that you leave not room to be surprised. If, while writing, you are not surprised, do not expect the reader to be so. Personally, I hardly figure how I could write if what I write do not surprise me beyond my expectations.

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