The One Mistake Writers Make that Can Ruin their Characters

Some writers call it a burst of inspiration. Some writers call it “being in the zone.” It’s that magical shift that happens when your characters start speaking and acting with their own free will. That point of no return when they run off on their own wild ride and you really have no choice but to follow along.

If this is what we all want from our characters, then why does it seem like it’s so hard to get there?

As a writer in the early stages of beginning your story, you have probably read a few different writing guides. You’ve also probably jumped around on the internet a bit and read articles on “character development”, “character motivation”, and “complex characters.” You’ve probably been beaten over the head with the belief that you need to be entirely in control of your characters at all times and make sure they execute a very precise set of actions calculated to give the reader the best experience possible.

But the secret to brilliant characterization is to know that—in the early stages—your characters could care less about what your reader thinks.

Your characters have shown up in your head because of their own personal agenda. They would be offended if they knew you assumed their reason for existence was to please your reader.

Now, I’m not suggesting you never rein your characters into a workable story that other people might want to read. But I am advising that you save this reining in for the editing stages of the work. When you’re in the very first stages (i.e., writing the very first sloppy draft) your characters sure as hell don’t want to be told what to do.

If you ignore the wants and needs of your characters and try to tell them what to do anyway, they will more than likely blow you off and disappear, or become uncooperative and refuse to move from Point A to Point B without you dragging them.

This stubbornness on the part of your characters will show up as writer’s block, plot action that feels forced and contrived, and dialogue that stays flat on the page.

Think of your characters as somewhat shy, extremely willful children who are about five years old. They’re smarter than you think they are and they know when you’re up to something and trying to lead them in a certain direction. And while you might have plans for your kid to be a champion soccer player, they might actually hate soccer and prefer to join the circus instead.

If your character wants to run off and join the circus and you try to stop them because it’s not in your outline, you didn’t expect them to take this course, or you’re just plain scared of deviating from your preconceived idea of what your story should look like, then your characters will swiftly punish you for it. Just like a rebellious kid would.

The real secret to drawing rich and complex characters is that you have to train yourself to listen. You have to become very, very good at staying open to what your characters want, rather than what you want. You have to let them have their freedom and independence. You have to trust them to make choices for themselves.

Not all of these choices will make sense to you. Some of them will make you cringe. And some will make you lay awake at night worrying about the outcome of your story. What have I done? You’ll ask yourself. How can my character possibly be making the right decision? And then, the most dangerous thought of all: Readers are going to hate them.

Readers may very well hate them. Just like with real people in the real world, that’s a chance every character worth reading about has to take. And you have to let them take it. Because that’s the chance every writer worth their salt knows is part of the craft.

Let your characters be themselves and follow the path they truly want to follow. Your job as a writer is not to force them into anything. Your only duty is to follow them around like a walking video camera and record what you see.

After all, writers are not gods. We’re only scribes.

If you enjoyed this article, you might want to check out:

How Music Can Help You Write Better Characters

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10 Comments

  • Reply Lisen Minetti 5 November, 2014 at 12:10 pm

    Lauren you have a beautiful knack for writing exactly what I need to read. My biggest GRRRR right now is that my MC is not starting off how I wanted her to. I just can’t seem to write her how I thought she would be. Because obviously she’s not there yet. Right now she’s just taking everything in. And I need to let that happen.

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 5 November, 2014 at 12:50 pm

      Trusting is always the hardest part of the writing process. It get easier as time goes on. But when you have those really headstrong characters show up, oh man, watch out!

  • Reply Tonette Joyce 5 November, 2014 at 12:23 pm

    I am right in the throes of that with my first novel.I have written poetry and articles which have been published; I have written plays and stories,( which I haven’t tried hard enough to have published), but I never had this experience before. My main characters got into some verbal sparring which I did not expect and more of their problems have come to light that I did not even know that they had. A couple of secondary characters simply do not want to cooperate at all. was really counting on them for an added dimension to the story…and then they showed up when I did not invite them.
    I have heard from so many other writers that this is common, so I won’t worry about my sanity…unless all writers are crazy!

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 5 November, 2014 at 12:49 pm

      Yes. Definitely, yes. All writers are crazy 😉

  • Reply Catherine North 5 November, 2014 at 2:04 pm

    Excellent advice there – I really struggle with the fear that readers are going to hate my characters. I have to remind myself firstly I can’t control how someone else feels about them, and secondly it would be wrong to impose an artificial change on their personality just so they can ‘fit in.’ They’d hate that as much as we do in real life!

  • Reply Glynis Jolly 6 November, 2014 at 6:14 am

    I think this is one of the reasons I stay a pantser. The closest I get to plotting is doing a short — very short summary of each scene before I start writing it.

  • Reply Jess Alter 6 November, 2014 at 9:16 am

    “After all, writers are not gods. We’re only scribes.”

    That’s my writing experience right there. Though I do have to fine-tune a lot of what characters do during later conflict scenes (Would Character X really react this way, or is this me trying to drag them around?), trusting the characters as I initially envisioned them always makes for better prose.

    Thanks for this entry! It’s well-written and a smooth read start to finish.

  • Reply Jon 9 November, 2014 at 1:13 am

    I love letting my characters race off and do their own thing – much of the time I have no idea what they’ll be coming back with, but it’s usually something rather alarming 🙂 Great post Lauren.

  • Reply hilarycustancegreen 10 November, 2014 at 7:00 am

    This is so true. I want my characters to be likeable and I am very susceptible to early reader’s comments. The book I am publishing now had, at one point, a much less pleasant main character, but I softened her language (I am not talking about swearing) to please other people. I should have let her express herself more honestly.

  • Reply Judith Post 24 November, 2014 at 7:29 pm

    Good blog post. I agree with you. Even when I have plot points, my characters manage to get from Point A to Point B by a route I didn’t think about. A good thing that they keep surprising me. Makes me like working with them:)

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