Of all the “writing rules,” this is the one almost every writer breaks.
It’s also the one that will always bite you in the ass if you break it.
If you break this rule, your story will punish you for it. Your plot will fall flat and your ending will fizzle. In fact, you might not even reach the end because your book will have given up on you long before you’re lucky enough to reach that point.
Here’s the rule:
ALWAYS listen to your characters.
Sounds simple enough, right?
Well, if it was that simple I wouldn’t have half the clients that I do looking for a writing coach because they’re helplessly stuck with their stories.
Because, sooner or later, every writer breaks this rule. Maybe we’ve decided that putting our novel under a deadline is the best way to make progress. Or maybe we just finished reading a screenplay or novel writing guide that told us our characters need to act in a certain way. Maybe we’re just experiencing plain old self-doubt and we think our story needs to be “different” or “better” in some way, so we’re trying to make it fit into our idea of what we think it should be.
Whatever the case, we’ve fallen into the trap of believing that our characters are pretend people who we control. We’ve decided that they need to do certain things, act a certain way, and carry out certain actions in order to fit the standard we’ve come up with for them inside our own minds.
So…how would you feel if you were in a working relationship with someone who had this attitude toward you?
I’m willing to bet that you would NOT want to work with them any longer. In fact, as we often see in the case with critical parents and oppressive home environments, you would probably want to get out of that relationship and as far away as possible as quickly as you could.
And this is exactly what happens when we try to force our characters to do things they don’t want to do.
This is when writers start feeling all the air going out of their story. They began the process with a euphoric rush of inspiration, they saw vivid images in their mind, and felt the powerful emotions of the character at a pivotal moment…and then they decided it would be a book. So, they sat down and painstakingly plotted it all out. They wrote chapter summaries and character profiles and checked off things on writing guide checklists. They felt very accomplished and like they were “getting shit done.” But then, they sat down to write and…nothing. Now they’re stuck and they don’t know why.
It’s because the character retreated. The character who first came through in that rush of emotional inspiration sat and watched the writer plan everything out for them and pull out all those checklists and felt dismissed, ignored, controlled, and/or unheard.
How do you feel when you’re in a relationship with someone and you feel dismissed, ignored, controlled and/or unheard?
That’s right. You most likely feel resentful, rebellious, and angry.
How open are you to sharing the deepest part of yourself and your story with someone when you’re in that state?
Bingo. That’s where your suddenly uncommunicative character is at too.
If you’re a writer who has a bulging file full of story arc plans, character sketches, schedules, checklists, and timelines, but no story, and you’re frustrated as to why this might be the case, look no further than the pissed-off character standing right in front of you.
I’m going to say this very seriously and I want you to really absorb it. In fact, it wouldn’t hurt to put this somewhere big and bold near your writing workstation:
Working with fictional characters is exactly the same as working with real people in real life.
Give them the respect and freedom they deserve.
That means that when you’re working with a character, you put aside all your plans for them. You scrap the checklist and concentrate on listening to what they want to tell you. You go into the process knowing and accepting that:
Your character might tell you things you didn’t expect
Your character might tell you things that hit uncomfortably close to home or that you don’t agree with
Your character might tell you about choices they made that you don’t approve of
Your character might not tell you what you want to know yet, they might need more time
Whatever your character tells you, it’s up to you to receive their communications with non-judgment, an open mind, and even compassion if you can manage it. Once your character truly feels comfortable with you and knows that you accept them for who they are, and you’re not going to try to change them to fit into some predetermined mold, they will really open up to you. That’s when you’ll feel that rush of electric inspiration return to the story. That’s when you’ll feel like you’re back in the zone, writing for an hour or two effortlessly, the words seeming to just flow out of you from some hidden magical source.
But you have to let go first.
You have to give up control over your characters and let them lead the way.
It’s one the hardest things you’ll do as a writer—trust and surrender—but oh, it is so worth it.
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