Sunday, April 3, 2016

Unblocking characters

Whereas the setting helps frame the action and avoids it all happening in a vacuum, the characters are what really bring the story to life. Often, when I find myself blocked, it’s because I don’t properly understand my characters.

At this point, the avid plotters will be wagging their fingers at me and gesticulating to their inch-think binder of lovingly alphabetized five-page-long character sheets. “Fill these out,” they cry, “and all will be well.”

“Nuts!” I reply. “That doesn’t work for me.”

Now, it’s important to remember that there is no right or wrong here. This is a game of try stuff out and find what works for you. One writer’s block-busting technique will often be another writer’s Muse-poison. You might find character sheet templates a boon, I happen not to.

What I do pay attention to is what drives a character. That may be rooted in their backstory, their affiliations, a particular trait ... when I get stuck, one of the things to explore is whether I’ve got a good handle on main and secondary characters’ drivers.

Sometimes it’s possible to simply sit down and list things out - the character sheet approach - but sometimes a bit more subtlety is needed to trick characters into revealing themselves.

I’ve blogged before about character interviews. I find this a great tool to help get into a character’s mind, and some surprising insights can come out. Things that you, the writer, never knew were there.

A related approach is to summarize the main gist of the story in a few paragraphs from each character’s point of view. Bring it alive to them - what is their part in it?

My current WIP was stuck in limbo for ages until I tried a variation on this theme. I listed out the main individuals and alliances, and for each one wrote out: what was motivating them, what their goal was in the story, and how they planned to reach that goal. That has since developed into a changing chart over time as goals collide and unfolding events either help or thwart them. Understanding the original motivation and goals is helping to flesh out realistic responses to events as they play out.

I’m sure there are lots of other tricks to help unlock a character’s mind. What suggestions do you have?


  1. Of course the adage is to show examples of character rather than stating them. Unfortunately it's far easier to just tell the reader something but this makes for a boring read.

  2. I do map out characters before writing and a character's goals and what motivates him are part of the procedure. It does help to know! And in whatever fashion works for you.

  3. Stephen, that is so true for the writing part of writing, the trick is to understand your character first.

    Alex, I kinda somehow had a feeling you'd be all over that :)


I love comments. Please feel free to join in the discussion.

I also try to respond to comments. I usually do so during the early evening (Pacific time) which may be many hours away from now!

So if you leave a comment and return some time later and I haven't responded yet, please don't think I'm ignoring you. I'm not. Honest.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...