Character Misbehavior: What to Do?

What do you do with someone who just won’t behave?

I’m talking secretive, aloof, moody . . . She wants something, I know, but she won’t tell me what. She’s keeping me up nights and interfering with my WIP’s progress, for sure.

I’m not talking about a daughter or a friend or a sister, although this person is one. A sister, I mean. In fact, she’s an identical twin, which complicates things even further.

Robin: the character who “vants to be alone!”

"Silhouette of a Woman" Image courtesy of Lobster20/

Silhouette of a Woman
Image courtesy of Lobster20/

I’m talking about the main character in what I hope will become my third book. Her name is Robin. As I said, she’s a twin. She has dark, curly hair and green eyes, she’s twenty pounds or so overweight, she’s married with two sons, and she’s a nurse. Her twin sister has died, and Robin carries a terrible secret. That’s what I know.

Even after feedback on the first chapter at Writers in Paradise back in January, I’ve remained stumped by what Robin really desires and what will keep her from getting it. (You can read the short story that prompted this third novel idea at Prime Number: Issue 37; it’s called “Book of Lies.”)

I started over with the beginning, typing it into Scrivener and revising as the story seemed to lead me. I was still worried, though, about not knowing clearly enough who Robin is and where she’s going. I’ve tried applying Ann Hood‘s novel rubric she shared in the Writers in Paradise workshop. It’s a good tool to get a handle on what a story is about (can you say it in a sentence?), determine what the “container” is (time frame and place), and sketch out the main characters and plot points. The rubric helped, but I’m still not there.

Getting from here to there

I have to confess I’ve never been big on plot points, but I’m learning. I tend to want to let the story evolve, which means I probably have to do a lot more work than someone who is able to plan the book out, start to finish. So I had been feeling a little inept as a writer  until I read a piece in The Writer’s Chronicle last week (March/April 2013 issue).

Many writing experts contend that we should know everything we possibly can about a character before we begin. But in “Homo Sapiens v. Homo Fictus, Or Why a Lot of Knowledge Can Be a Dangerous Thing Too,” David Jauss takes the stance that we don’t have to know everything! In fact, Jauss says it may be preferable not to know; not knowing every little detail ahead of time may lead to richer characterization as we discover things about characters as we write them. (I highly recommend this article; if you’re an AWP member but not a subscriber, you can access it online. Or maybe you can find a copy at your library. It’s worth the read, especially if the issues surrounding characterization are of particular importance to you.)

What a relief!

What Jauss says doesn’t absolve me of all responsibility where this manuscript is concerned. I can’t put the writing on automatic pilot–wouldn’t that be interesting?–but his take allows me the freedom to write about this character and her circumstances and see if, after a while, I’ll discover along with her how she ticks, where she’s headed, and how she’ll get there.

So here we go, my make-believe friend, Robin! Let’s see where the words on the page take both of us.

How do you handle your less-than-cooperative characters? Are you a “know everything” writer or one who goes with the flow?

5 thoughts on “Character Misbehavior: What to Do?

  1. Sometimes I writer a letter to another character from the one I’m trying to figure out, in order to get in his/her head. Sometimes I’ll write a rant about something that makes me angry (from that character’s POV).

    If that doesn’t work, sometimes I just start writing the novel, and then after getting 50 or so pages down, I’ll step away and see what I have and whether I’ve gained any insight into where I want to go with it.

    Best of luck “discovering” Robin –I hope she doesn’t elude you much longer!


    • I heard a couple of writers talk about writing into the novel to discover whether the story’s there or not. I think it’s a good approach. I may not know the end, but I should know the characters better. I like your letter idea! I’ll try that, too.


  2. This does sound like quite a conundrum, and something that would frustrate me. (In life and in my writing, I like to know what’s going to happen next/what to expect!). Thanks for sharing the resources you’ve used to help you figure out how to handle to the challenge.


    • Thanks, Emily. It is a conundrum (I like that word!). At a recent writers’ conference, I heard two different writers say it takes writing 50-75 pages for them to know whether they really have a book or not. So I’ll take this one that far and see if it seems to want to hold together!


  3. I’m with you, I’d rather that Robin tell YOU her secrets as you write away, rather than you tell HER her secrets words away from her true feelings (as you plot along, ploddingly). I am a true believer that our characters should tell us the story, rather than the other way. Keep it up. And don’t give up!


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