Vision: A Resource for Writers

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The Misbehaving Character

By Devon Ellington
Copyright 2008 by Devon Ellington, All Rights Reserved

We've all had it happen.  We have a great idea for a story, our fingers fly across the keyboard and then, boom!  The character stops doing what we want, what we need, what we've planned the character to do.  The character goes off and does something else: something unexpected, out of our comfort zone, and way off the outline!

How do you handle a character who becomes rebellious?  When you've got a lovely plot outlined, and your character decides, "No way!  That's not what I'd do!" and goes off in a completely different direction?  A few years ago, this discussion came up during a writers' conference in a bar.  I wish I could remember the name of the author, but she vehemently declared that she was in charge, and her characters did whatever she decided, she was the god figure in her created universe, and the characters had no say in the matter.  I can't remember her name or anything she's written, so I don't know how her universe works.

In my experience, there are several choices:

1.  Play God and refuse your characters the leeway to follow their paths.  Stick closely to your original plot and storyline, without veering from it in the least.

2.  Allow your character to veer off on tangents.  See if any of it works.  See if the character (also known as a section of your subconscious) knows more about the story than you do.  Once you've followed the tangent or tangents, look back on it with an editor's eye, not a writer's eye. See what serves the story the best.  Keep it, and cut the rest.

3.  Completely follow your character's lead and change your story/outline/view of this particular fictional world to the new path your character carves.

4.  Dump the story and the character; start something new.  Maybe come back to this piece in the future.  Or don't.

Any of these options might make sense, depending on the writer and the situation.  I asked three of my favorite writers (and people) about their experiences in this realm, and they provided some interesting anecdotes.

Jackie Kessler, author of Hell's Belles, The Road to Hell, and the upcoming Hotter Than Hell, said:

Okay, recent example: In Hotter Than Hell (August 2008), the chapter was supposed to open with the main character talking to his friend, a dancer in a strip club, to get information. But I had a hell of a time writing the scene. Without sounding too schizophrenic, I hope, the main character wanted to watch his friend dance first. The silent (fictional) conversation went like this:

ME: Daun, come on, the readers have had two books of watching Jesse dance. Who cares about watching her dance? You need to talk to her to get the info you need.

DAUN: I want to watch her dance.

ME: No.

DAUN: Then I ain't workin'. 

And sure enough: writer's block. So finally, I caved and wrote the intro scene with him watching her dance. And man, it was a killer scene it really solidified (to the reader) his feelings for her, and it also wound up revealing an important piece of information in and of itself.

 So my advice is this: If your characters start tugging you in another direction, let them run. See where they take you. Sure, it might be completely different from what you want, and what you expect. But it also might be pure gold.

Novelist, poet, editor, and publisher Colin Galbraith adds:

When my characters start to want to do their own thing, I figure it's because they have grown from being a basic character sketch into a multi-dimensional character that lives and breathes in my imagination. They have become mature and rounded enough, and have developed their own sense of 'being', and it is their own will and 'life force' making them want to go the way they do. It's a great feeling, but takes a bit of practice, to be able to trust your story in the hands of someone who doesn't exist; but because they are the story, it is them who must tell it in whatever way is true to them. Like stepping out over a ledge into the darkness of the unknown, a writer must have faith in the very characters they have brought to life, and trust in them to tell the story, to guide the writer, and help them see the way.

Jenny Gardiner finds that following the character's lead can give both writer and reader a deeper understanding:

My novel Sleeping With Ward Cleaver is told through the first person POV of my protagonist, Claire Doolittle. I wanted to take an unhappy housewife, albeit with a razor-edge sense of humor and an ability to laugh at herself, and let her swirl into a cocktail of mid-life crisis hell. The interesting thing is her husband, Jack, the putative Ward Cleaver of the book, just kept rearing his ugly head and asking me to soften him up and make him more sympathetic. I'd originally had a bit more of a 'go-girl' thing happening, you know how it is, sitting around with a bunch of girlfriends drinking wine and everyone is bitching about their husband and buttressing one another by sneering at the men's transgressions. I wanted to give it that slant for Claire on behalf of all of those disgruntled housewives out there. But Jack kept nudging himself in and he kept reminding me that he can't help it he's a guy and really, he means well, even if he can be a lunkheaded oaf at times.  Eventually I gave him the benefit of the doubt and gave everyone a reason to like him even though he'd become such an officious presence in Claire's life.

In my own writing, I tend to gravitate towards Option 2, with maybe a touch of Option 3 tossed in.  I trust my characters to behave in ways that are true to them, and I trust my subconscious to know more about what I'm doing than I do.  I'll make some changes, but won't let a single character dictate the entire scope of the piece, unless my theme is the protagonist's self-discovery and I'm making the journey entirely with the character as I write.  The less I try to consciously control the process in the first draft, the higher the quality of the writing on the page.  In subsequent drafts, I impose more structure, rearrange, and finesse, but for early drafts, I find trusting the characters and following their leads takes me to more interesting places than those I'd think of on my own. 


Gardiner, Jenny.  Sleeping With Ward Cleaver.  Published by Love Spell, 2008.  ISBN- 13:  978-0505527479;

Kessler, Jackie.  Hell's Bells.   Published by Zebra Books, 2007.  ISBN-13:  978-0821781029.

Kessler, Jackie.  The Road to Hell.  Published by Zebra Books, 2007.  ISBN-13:  978-0821781036.

Kessler, Jackie.  Hotter Than Hell.  To be published by Kensington Books, 2008.  ISBN-13:  978-0821781043.


Devon Ellington publishes under a half a dozen names in both fiction and non-fiction, appearing in publications as varied as FemmeFan, Espresso Fiction, The Scruffy Dog Review, Wild Child, The Crafty Traveler,  and SavvyGal.  Her blog on the writing life, Ink in My Coffee, is on: