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What do you do when your characters rebel?
Maria Granovsky
Posted: Thursday, March 8, 2012 11:51 AM
Joined: 1/10/2012
Posts: 28

I've been butting heads with my protagonist for almost a year now. I keep trying to make her care about the tensions between India and Pakistan, and all she wants is a romance with a police officer.

So when your characters rebel, do you follow them, or do you stick to your original idea and force them to behave? Or is there a third way that I'm not seeing?
GD Deckard
Posted: Thursday, March 8, 2012 5:05 PM
What an interesting question! My first reaction is to give 'em the boot. Move rebellious characters to another story.

Maybe you're trying to write two stories?
Carl E Reed
Posted: Thursday, March 8, 2012 6:50 PM
Joined: 4/27/2011
Posts: 608

I'm gonna ask the obvious, Maria: Is your police officer Indian and your protagonist Pakistani (or vice versa)?

Because if they are . . . problem solved! Or rather, complicated exponentially. . . .
Angela Martello
Posted: Thursday, March 8, 2012 7:12 PM
Joined: 8/21/2011
Posts: 394

Hmmm, the way I see it, if my characters are rebelling, that means they're more developed than I thought! Here I was trying to pigeon-hole them into behaving a certain way and, lo and behold, self-awareness, free will, whatever you want to call it, kicked in and my characters - creatures of my imagination - suddenly took on a lives of their own. Seriously, though, as I've worked through my trilogy, my characters have evolved a great deal - some of them doing things I never would have imagined them doing many years ago when I started writing the books. But I have changed over the years; so why not my characters? They are, after all, a part of me.

As GD suggested, though, it is possible that the characters you have in one story need to be in another  - or maybe they shouldn't be the main characters (perhaps demote them to secondary characters?). Or maybe you need to develop a far more complex plot line - one that encompasses the story you want to write and the one your characters seem to want to follow.

Carl E Reed
Posted: Thursday, March 8, 2012 7:30 PM
Joined: 4/27/2011
Posts: 608

I second what GD and Angela are saying here. I believe that when our characters "come to life on the page" something very important is happening: the plotted narrative has grown too constricted and limiting for the people the author designated to act it out. They (or rather, your subconscious) is rebelling.

The question is, why? This is hard to put into words but I'm going to try: that part of yourself that intuitively understands the world in terms of emotional responses to external stimuli, gut-feeling, gestalt thinking and mystical insight/alternate ways of knowing (I hate that latter expression but there's no other way of putting it) is "acting out" in order to get your attention.

Run with it. Get it all down. Later, you can decide if you've begun a different story, or can somehow deepen and enrich your current narrative with this unexpected gift of free-wheeling creative play.

This I do know: nothing is ever wasted. Don't choke these characters off; you could be slamming the door on some of your best writing.    
LeeAnna Holt
Posted: Thursday, March 8, 2012 8:36 PM
Joined: 4/30/2011
Posts: 662

It is true that characters do grow, and trying to shove them into a slot where they don't belong doesn't ever work out well. It becomes disjointed. Unless it is your character's intent to try to fit in somewhere, or care about something, that doesn't fit them, then avoid it. She's probably just outgrown what you need her for. Make a new plot, or a new character. I try to drive the plot to fit the character.
Maria Granovsky
Posted: Thursday, March 8, 2012 8:59 PM
Joined: 1/10/2012
Posts: 28

Thank you for your responses. You're all saying the things that a small voiced has been whispering to me for as long as I've been battling my protagonist. I was just hoping that someone here knows a magic spell that I could repeat a few times to make her get back into the plot I designed for her.

And Carl, no, they're not Pakistani/Indian - both are American. But that would have been very cool.

I now have to make peace with the idea that there might be romance writing in my future. Oy. Scary.

Carl E Reed
Posted: Thursday, March 8, 2012 9:04 PM
Joined: 4/27/2011
Posts: 608

I forget who said it but I'm going to repeat it: Romance is eveyone's secret dream. Go for it, Maria! And good luck.

Elizabeth Moon
Posted: Tuesday, July 3, 2012 1:28 AM
Joined: 6/14/2012
Posts: 195

It depends on the situation.  Sometimes I go with them (if they're moving an interesting story along) and sometimes I kick 'em in the rear (if they're not) and sometimes I realize I've chosen the wrong protagonists for that story (or the wrong story for them.)   Forcing characters can turn them into plastic--so it's better to find out what they're up to and go there, or find other characters. 

Consider that these are your characters, so the problem they're giving you is very likely emerging from you...you thought you wanted to write a political story, but maybe when you got closer to it, it was more than you (at some level) wanted to take on.  The love story is less complex, in a way.  (Not that love is less complex than politics, but a given love situation can be.) 

Think what kind of characters would be passionate about politics--and that area of politics in particular.  Maybe not people who could fall in love with each other.  Maybe older--maybe already in relationships with someone else.   Maybe characters who wish these lovers would quite being "selfish" (in their terms) while the lovers think the other characters characters are themselves selfish...there's a season for love, and the young people think they have little time to enjoy it.   Around every couple are other people who have opinions about them--who try to direct them, guide them, push their own agendas on them.   Let your frustration with the couple energize these other characters.

Herb Mallette
Posted: Tuesday, July 3, 2012 3:35 PM
Joined: 6/28/2011
Posts: 188

In three out of my four most recent books, the most important scene in the book is one where the characters refused to do what I originally planned. In one case, this required me to invent a radically different plot point for resolving an entire trilogy. To me, that's pure gold. It means I've found something in my characters that is so real I cannot ignore it, no matter how much extra work it causes me. After all, making a plot feel real is not necessarily that hard, and doesn't guarantee that you're having an impact on your reader. But making a character feel real is a genuine accomplishment that's almost certain to move the audience.

Jay Greenstein
Posted: Thursday, July 5, 2012 11:24 PM

I’m way late to this one, but for what it’s worth…

• I've been butting heads with my protagonist for almost a year now. I keep trying to make her care about the tensions between India and Pakistan, and all she wants is a romance with a police officer.

Sounds like the story is out of control because you’re chronicling the character’s movements rather than placing that character into situations that will induce him/her to want to do what the story requires them to do. It has to read as real, of course, and the characters must be active participants, but, they work for you. It’s in their contract. So if they refuse change their character or what's motivating them.

The structure of a typical story presents the protagonist with some sort of a situation, one they find intolerable. Initially, the problem may be small, but in the protagonist’s eyes it needs fixing.

In other words, the inciting incident. Thereafter, each time the protagonist tries to fix things, they get worse and the problem more serious, until the climax. And during that time the character is too busy worrying about what’s going wrong, and how to fix it, to head off in random directions. If they start to wander off, just toss a body through the ceiling to attract their attention. They have free will, but you control what comes at them, and when.

Say your character discovers that the aliens everyone thinks are benign are actually planning to take over the planet and murder everyone. Would the protagonist focus on romancing someone they find attractive and let the bad guys win? Would you, as a reader, want to follow that, or would you be saying, “Hey wait…what about those…”

Heinlein once said that he didn’t plot his stories. He simply put two people who passionately wanted something that, if they got it, would screw the other person, into the traditional crucible, where neither can give up, and neither can let t drop. They’ll provide the story, he said. It’s a simplification, but still, it will provide drama, and keep your character focused. If your characters have time to think about anything but what matters to the story you’re not a tough enough director.

Follow a character around, recording what they do and say hoping they will do something interesting? Naaa… Drop a vampire in with designs on your protagonist, or a hit-man with his/her name on his list, or anything that will make your character say, “Holy shit…now what?”

They’ll stop screwing around with side plots, then.

Turquoise Foster
Posted: Wednesday, September 12, 2012 4:53 PM
Joined: 8/26/2012
Posts: 19

I just started and this happens to me quite often. When I get stuck with a rebellious character I place something in the story that distracts them from whatever they are doing at the moment. Is my main character gets caught up in her boyfriend I add a dilemma in the upcoming chapter.

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