A couple of years ago I was working on a novel and having the hardest time with the main character. I felt him so strongly, but he wouldn’t talk to me. I could see him clear as day. I knew what kind of music he loved, the exact shade of his green eyes, the way he obsessively rolled his socks. But all I had were those types of details, the ones that could be gleaned through pure observation. He wouldn’t voluntarily share anything else with me—not his past, not his current motivations, and sure as hell not his plans for the future.
So I was stuck. Because character description only gets you so far in a story and I still needed the plot. How was I supposed to write a book with this guy as the star player when I didn’t even know his most basic objective?
This kind of stuck-energy scenario happens frequently with characters, and a lot of the time the writer chalks it up to a failure on their part. They assume that the character doesn’t have potential, or that they don’t have the writing chops to draw them in a way that feels lifelike and emotionally authentic. What’s really going on is that the character has been through some sort of trauma and they have a tough time with intimacy and communication because they have trust issues. In fact, the odds of working with a severely traumatized protagonist are astronomically higher than running into a severely traumatized person in real life. This is because almost every story is born out of some experience of trauma, so every protagonist is bound to be traumatized to some degree.
It’s going to be most helpful to keep in mind that protagonists are just like real people in real life. Everyone reacts to trauma in different ways. Some characters might use constant talking as a defense and so they’ll habitually over-share or hog the limelight. These types will need a strict hand in the editing stage, as much of their outpouring usually needs to be cut during revisions. However, compared to the protagonist who doesn’t trust anyone and won’t let anyone in, the chatterbox characters are a piece of cake.
When you’re dealing with a traumatized character who won’t let you get close, the first step is to identify the pattern and see it for what it is. It’s not that you’re unable to write this character or that the character is too weak to build a story around. It’s that they need special care. Sit with the character and observe them with your full attention, as if you were sitting in a room with a beautiful tiger. How closely would you keep an eye on that tiger? How softly and slowly would you shift your position? How much respect would you show him? That’s the kind of energy you want to bring to this exchange. You never take your eye off that character but you don’t make any sudden moves either.
Here’s the hard part: you’re going to come back and sit with that character every day. Even if you’re not actually writing each day, you’re still going to sit with them in your mind. You’re not going to give up on this person. It might take a long time before they feel comfortable with you. If they’re emotionally shut down, it will definitely take longer than most. That’s okay. This is the real work of the artist, the work that not many creatives talk about. So much attention is devoted to shrill dictates urging writers to write every day and kill their darlings that much of what it means to do the true, deep work is never discussed. This is the true deep work. Holding a safe space for something to come through from the other side, and listening patiently for the essence of that thing, in order to render it as true to its original form as possible.
The longer you sit with the character the sharper your intuition will become. Soon, you’ll see that they were never a weak character; it was never a failure on your part. You’ll be able to immediately pinpoint that ineffable skating away feeling they put out when they’re trying to cloak themselves or withdraw from you. But because you’ve been practicing holding a safe space for them in your mind, you won’t give chase. Instead, you’ll center yourself and shift back to neutral, patiently waiting for them to return. And don’t worry, they will return. The one reliable trait of all characters is that they’re curious about writers. They can’t help it. If you sit still long enough they’ll sidle up to you sometime.
The flip side of this is the character who keeps pushing through no matter what. Usually this happens when you decide to cut a character based on logical reasons alone, without listening to your intuition. You might assume that you need to trim the cast, or that the character has a low likeability factor and therefore won’t be well-received by readers. Whatever the reason, you’ve cut this character but they don’t want to be cut. Then they don a few different masks and try to come through anyway.
I like to think of it in terms of auditions: The character who is sure you have a part for them in your play just won’t give up. First they audition for the part of the father, but you reject them. So the next day they turn up with a fake moustache and try for the role of the brother. No dice again, but they’re not worried. Because the next day they’ll come on crutches and hope you’ll take them on as the protagonist’s best friend.
If you’ve never dealt with the character who won’t stop auditioning then you might be fooled by their different disguises. But once someone else (i.e., a good critique partner, editor, or writing coach) points it out to you it will be impossible not to see that it’s the same character showing up over and over again. The simple solution that I always recommend: Just let them have their part for Pete’s sake. They’re showing up for a reason. Characters have intuition too, you know. And if one of them is doing this much work to get into your story, then chances are they need to be there.
The lesson here is to always listen to your characters. It sounds easy, but our intentions can get scrambled and lost when we’re feeling frantic with self-judgment and overwhelmed with expectations about how other people will read our work.
Follow your intuition. Hold space for your story. Have faith that you are the one to write it.