Battling Writer’s Block: Letting Characters Drive the Story

It’s safe to say that almost every writer out there has suffered from writer’s block in some way, whether it’s a question of what to do with a character, where the plot should go next, how the story should end, or even how it should begin. There are a number of ways to try getting through that brick wall, but I want to focus on one that I have found to be quite helpful in my own writing:

Ask your character.

Say what? How does a fictional character that you gave life to, that you decided on their appearance, their personality, their every personal detail, have the ability to drive a story? If you’ve developed your character effectively, asking them should be like asking your friend, or at least an acquaintance.

Let’s say you’ve made it part way through your novel and you’re stuck. Maybe you have some ideas of different paths to take and can’t decide which way to go. Ask your character which way they would naturally follow. Perhaps you’re partial to Path B but your character is telling you that Path A makes more sense, that they are more inclined to drive things in that direction. Listen to them and do it.

Now let’s say you’re close to the end of the novel and get stuck there. You have no idea at all what to do, not even a single thought of where the story should go next. Ask your character. I know you’re saying it’s not that easy, a character cannot possibly pull an idea out of the sky, but if you’ve developed your character deeply enough, they will answer you. Close your eyes and imagine yourself standing next to your character, looking them in the eye and saying, “Where should we go from here?” Walk beside them as they lead you where they are naturally inclined to go.

So, you’ve got a character that has answered your questions and they have told you clearly what they want to do, but you hate their answer. You think it’s a terrible idea and your story will be a train wreck if you follow their lead. Listen to them and do it anyway. Often times when you let the character lead you, they only lead one step at a time rather than telling you the full narrative of what they want. If you take each step walking beside them as you write, you just might be surprised with where you end up.

If you’ve followed your character’s suggestion and you’re not happy with where you ended up, try writing the story going in another direction. Perhaps take that other path you were considering or go in the complete opposite direction of what your character said and compare. You might even take it a step further by telling your character, “Go down this path, then tell me what you would do from here.” Walk beside them again, and once you’ve reached your destination, decide which way worked best.

Stepping aside from the topic of writer’s block for a moment, using this character-driving technique can improve your story in other ways, particularly in dialogue exchanges. Rather than putting words in your character’s mouth, let them speak on their own. Watch their physical actions as they talk and describe this in your writing. Letting a main character shine on their own creates a deeper connection with readers, making them feel more immersed in the story.

So go ahead. Ask your character. If they don’t answer you, revisit your character development. If they have ideas, let them take the wheel and enjoy the ride.

The Benefits of Changing Point of View

Many times when that great story idea hits us writers, we know exactly how we want things to go. We know who our main character will be, if we want it in first or third person, where it will take place, and likely some side characters too. Then we start putting those words on paper, everything flows, we’re proud, excited, feeling awesome.

But what happens when you change any of those beginning ideas after the first draft?

When I was in college, the advanced writing course required students to participate in the “steeplechase” writing exercise. In this exercise, writers are to follow a set of twelve steps, writing a different section of the story based on each step. I won’t list them all here, but I will discuss two of the steps that completely changed a story I wrote—for the better.

First Person or Third?

After the first step of the steeplechase, which is just writing a section of the story as you normally would, step two is to switch the POV from first to third, or vice versa. My story was originally in first person, so I changed it to third. Depending on your main character, this can either be a minor change or a drastic change in voice. In my case, it went from the voice of a fifteen-year-old girl to that of a neutral adult narrator.

Big change. Look at a story you’ve written and think about what would happen if you were to change that point of view. Would it completely change the story from what you originally planned? If so, is that really a bad thing?

For my story it was a tremendous upgrade. But the POV changes don’t stop there.

Who is the Main Character?

Step four of the steeplechase asks the student to write from the point of view of another character. Any secondary character that might have a chance to progress the story through their eyes would be a fine choice. I had a character who was somewhat of an anti-hero and played a significant part in the story, so I chose to write from his point of view, in the third person. Before long, I knew I wanted this POV to be intermingled with that of the main character. Both would drive the story together.

In your writing, pick another character in a scene and start writing through their eyes. Let that character’s voice and attitude drive the scene, then take a step back and analyze the scene’s new direction. Is it a direction you might want to continue? If not, consider it a great exercise in character development. But you might be (pleasantly) surprised at the results.

The Final Outcome

You may find that making these changes will not benefit your story, maybe even harm it. And that’s okay. But forcing yourself to write from a different angle not only makes for excellent writing practice, but also opens the mind to other opportunities. Perhaps next time you get a story idea, try this again and see the results. My story, which went through the entire twelve-step steeplechase exercise, is now told entirely from the point of view of the anti-hero in third person, and I am more passionate about it than ever. Change can be wonderful. Embrace it.

Writing a Character of the Opposite Sex

In one of my writing classes in college, my least favorite teacher of all time told the class that it was not possible for anyone to successfully write in the point of view of the opposite sex. I said hold my drink (not out loud, of course). The novel I then focused on for the class workshop starred a male character, and though told in the third person, the story focuses on his thoughts, feelings, and actions. The reader sees everything through his eyes.

How can I, a female, possibly be able to fully and accurately develop and write from the view of a male character? How can any man possibly depict a woman’s point of view? It’s well known that our brains work differently, that we see many things from different perspectives, and I’m sure we form our thoughts differently as well. Good character development comes in part from getting inside the head of the character, but unless we’re like that guy from the movie What Women Want, that’s going to be a bit difficult.

Or is it?

Analyzing Those Close to You

Most if not all of us have close friends or a significant other of the opposite sex. These are people we likely know more deeply than we would an acquaintance. Rather than try and compare them to you, focus on what is unique to them as a group. What mannerisms do you notice among those of the opposite gender? Consider both body language and dialogue. What stands out? Make your character do some of these things and see if they fit.

People Watching

As something that typically comes naturally to writers, try watching those around you. Sit in a public place like a busy park or mall and take note of what you see among those of the opposite sex. Many people act differently when in public, so take note of the differences. How do they sit or walk? How do they communicate with strangers? This may not get you into their head, but being able to describe these things will aid in character development.

Read, Read, Read

The easiest way to get into the head of someone different is to read character-driven books. Search out books that are told from the point of view of the opposite sex and read them. You might say that you read books all the time with characters like that, but you need to read like a writer, not just sit back to enjoy the story. Analyze the character and how he or she was written, making sure you get a clear picture of who that person is and what makes them that way. Be sure to choose a variety of books to review to get a clear picture of different types of people.

Get an Expert Opinion

Once your story’s first draft is complete and you are in the market for an editor, try finding one that matches the sex of your main character. Not only will you get an opinion as to whether you have succeeded in depicting your character, but he or she can provide expert advice on how to tweak it, if necessary. A story like this will benefit greatly from developmental editing.

As for my closed-minded, old-school teacher? She never commented on my male character being wrong and she gave me an A in the class. Moral of the story: You can do it.

Improving Character Development

I’ve discussed in previous posts the importance of character development and how other ways of improving your writing can have an effect on your characters. I want to dedicate a single post to this topic, as it is, in my opinion, the biggest driving force of a story next to plot.

Do you really know who your characters are? You might think so, but as I discovered first hand, it’s very possible to not have characters fully developed, no matter how much you think you know. When I had a critique done on a novel I wrote, I was surprised to hear that the characters I felt so strongly about and thought I knew inside and out really didn’t come across as developed. The critiquer even stated that by the end of the story, they did not feel like they knew that character at all.

Many writers ask how they can improve character development, not knowing where to start. I say start at the beginning. As a writing exercise, rewind your character’s life and write their story. Try answering these questions to get started:

  • Who were their parents? Or were they raised by someone other than their parents?
  • Did they grow up in a poor environment or affluent family?
  • Did they have childhood friends? Do any friends from back then stick around to show up in your story?
  • How did they do in school? Did they struggle, or did they go to advanced classes?

If your character is an adolescent, you can’t go much farther in life than this. Consider more tiny details like favorite movies, books, games, food. These are good If your character is an adult too, but also consider some more questions, depending on age:

  • What do they do for work? Have they had multiple jobs? Did they like it or hate it?
  • What kind of car do they drive? Or do they have to take the bus?
  • If they have a significant other, how did they meet? How have past relationships been?

Don’t just answer these questions in one sentence. Take it and make a mini story. For example, if your character had a childhood friend, write about their relationship. Even if this friend does not appear in your main story, writing out how they were as children or teenagers will bring out traits in your character that you might not have seen. Perhaps it’s a friend that your character lost touch with before your main story begins, and their parting affected your character’s actions toward others in the future. Knowing the details of their past will help you tune into how your character became who they are today.

Any of these questions can be developed into a mini story, and even linked together to make a full profile of your character’s life before now. Make it at least a couple of pages long, but don’t limit yourself. You might discover something new and run with it. By the end you should feel that you know every detail about them, because if you were thorough enough, you should know everything and be prepared to bring those things to life in your story.