Chocolate or Whips and Chains: When Your Characters are Still Ignoring You

Not too long ago I wrote suggesting advice for what to do when your characters are ignoring you and inspiration is lacking. Well, I happen to have a set of characters who are STILL ignoring me. Is it time to pull out the whips and chains to beat them into submission, or chocolate to either bribe them or make myself feel better? I’m writing this week about getting your characters to talk to you and get back to work, which, of course, is where we all want to be.

Sometimes you just have a manuscript or idea that isn’t gelling. This could be personal issues glutting up the creativity, or just plain stubborn characters. I (hopefully) can offer some solutions. And as much as whips and chains sound a far cry from bribing with chocolate, they’re just two different means to the same ends: productivity and answers. Some refer to it as the carrot (I like chocolate better) or the stick (yes, you probably already know I like beating my characters and muse – only in my head, promise!).

Some would suggest starting by playing nice, but I’ve tried that a lot already with my two characters, so let’s move right on to violence, hmm?

Pull out the whips and chains – no more nice, pushover writer:

  1. Open the door to the wardrobe hiding all those terrible instruments of persuasion. Write anyway, whether the character is fully “there” or not. You’ll figure it out later. Maybe you’re just in a difficult spot. There is a caveat to this: eventually, when the character does appear (and they will … in their own sweet time) you will have a lot of rewriting to do. Also, this can sometimes lead to problems where you tried to force your characters into situations they’re not comfortable with. However, as you write, you often discover things you hadn’t before – is your character a secret artist? Why would he respond in a puzzling way to a certain situation? Oh, wait! It’s his terrible fear of crickets brought on by a dreadful night trapped in the cricket-infested stables, locked there by his father!
  2. Reach in, and touch one of the whips. With your character now fully aware of your intentions, start the interview. Who are you? What do you want? Why are you being so difficult? This is similar to the character sheet (we’ll get to that with the chocolate) – and often done in free-write, but combine the two: write the question, write an answer, question, answer, etc. If your character really were in a situation where they were being threatened and questioned, how would they react? Why? What would make them angrier, or comfort them?
  3. Pull out the first whip. Force your character into an unusual situation. Try to understand how they’d feel in your shoes – we write from life, right? Is your boss giving you a hard time? Have you been fighting with everyone lately? Babysitting? Cleaning house? What would make your character have to do these things or place them in this situation? How would they react? Why? Is this plausible enough to include in your latest work? Why would it be interesting? My character, for example, may take up house cleaning, even though he’s homeless. This is an unusual task and attribute for him, but it strangely fits him – probably because he’s a creature borne of me – and will add an unusual, personalized quirk to his character. Don’t add quirks just for the sake of adding them, but if you imagine your characters have mundane and exciting lives, how could the mundane become exciting?
  4. Snap the whip for effect. Define the geography of your story. This may seem odd indeed to include in an entry on character development, but sometimes plotting out the journey and your character’s lives on a map – even if it’s a rough drawing on the back of an envelope – can help lay out the plot, or draw you into the character’s perspective: how do they get from A to B? Why would they choose these methods? Have they been to these places before? How do they feel about these places? This is one where the whip is probably harder for you than for the character.
  5. Another snap of the whip. Jump through time and space. Have you considered that perhaps it’s only the section you’re working on? Is there a section you keep thinking about? What appealed to you about this character in the first place? Why not write it out of order, even if it’s only a rough sketch? It can be incorporated later, and you could catch your character off-guard in a less stubborn moment.

Now that they’re miserable, switch it up with the chocolate – I highly recommend finding a literal chocolate bar to help with this metaphorical journey:

  1. Open the wrapper, and start the conversation. Who are you? What do you want? What do you need? Why are you here? A good start to this is by filling out character information sheets. These are a great reference to have on hand later, with handy info like description, history, relevant names of family, etc. And sometimes, you’ll find the character starts revealing themselves – who knew they’re a second child who was horribly abused by their sibling and have only ever wanted their mother’s love? These are important – and interesting – tidbits to use later.
  2. Break off the first piece, and offer it tentatively. Character sheets can be dull, and another way to fill them in – and to get to know your character – is to write first person, their perspective. Try free-writing, letting them lead you where they will. Start with the simple phrase: “My name is …” followed by things like “I want …” or whatever questions you want answered.  Let it be long and meandering, and the solutions and answers will come to you.
  3. Break off another piece, and eat this one yourself. As you contemplate the taste, does it inspire you? What does? What frees your creativity and inspiration? For some people, it’s music. Others, taking a walk. For me, water. Taking a shower or having a bath, even when it rains: it helps free my creativity. When were you last most inspired? Can you repeat the process?
  4. Another piece of chocolate, to the character this time. What kind of movies would he watch? What kind of books would he read? What would he think of the TV show you just watched, or your daily activities? What would he be doing instead? Why? Immerse yourself in who you think the character is. You might be surprised at the answers.
  5. Another small tidbit of chocolate. What does your character look like? Is he inspired by an actor? Someone you saw in a great movie? Find these images for yourself, and stare your character right in the eye – or as close to it as you can – and sometimes the picture will start talking (only metaphorically since literally would be scary).
  6. Break the last of the chocolate bar in half – some for you, some for the character. You’ll need it, since this is hard work. Go back to essence of the character. What made you create this character in the first place? What appealed to you? Do you remember? Is he the right character for the job? If not, who is? If all else fails, go back to the drawing board.

Well, it’s been raining all day, and both my character and I love the rain (as long as I’m not trapped in it). So, it’s back to writing for me. Did these solutions help? Have I missed any? Please, leave a comment, let me know what you think, or any of your ideas on how you deal with stubborn characters.