Two days of writer’s block unlocked a character’s secret

3422912206_c3c79e15f5_oI’ve spent the last couple of days blocked about a scene in Ever Rest. Solving it became a bit of a saga – and an unexpected and rather important answer.

The first symptom I noticed was irritation. A character in a scene I was revising was annoying me. I quickly figured out why. In previous scenes I’d been writing from her point of view. Although I had a strong idea of what she wanted from the inside, when viewed by another character she was a blank nothing. She didn’t feel like real flesh and blood. I couldn’t describe her.

(I’m not talking here about whether her eyes are blue or she likes sharp suits – the physical attributes we can bestow almost without thought. I mean the essence of her. A good character description makes you understand what it’s like to be in their presence. For instance: this is from William Boyd’s Brazzaville Beach, which I’m currently reading:

She had unusual eyes, the upper lids seemed heavy, as if she were dying to go to sleep but was making a special effort for you… She was very thin. I imagined that in the right clothes she would look elegant. I had never seen her in anything but a shirt and trousers.’)

A presence
So I needed to give my nebulous character some physical heft to make her more real. I considered which actress might play her in a movie, no one seemed right. I considered whether real-life friends or acquaintances had a quality I could borrow to start her off. No one fitted. She remained faceless, presenceless.

A name
Perhaps I’d given her the wrong name, which had then conjured the wrong impression about her. I wondered whether to rechristen to appreciate her afresh. I rolled some possibilities around. None seemed to suit her better than her existing name.

Accessing a difficult personality
I’ve often written characters who I found hard to access immediately; this is the challenge of creating people who are not like you. Gene in My Memories of a Future Life was the stubbornest beast to channel. Writing his dialogue was like trying to guess the desires of an inscrutable and unpredictable monarch – endless patience and guesswork. When I made the audiobook, he gave my voice actor unsettling dreams.

A line she would not say
So I did what I often do in that situation – began editing, guessing new dialogue, and hoped the character would join in. In the first draft she’d asked an important question – and this became the sticking point. Now, she wouldn’t do it.

I tried all sorts of segues to allow it to arise naturally, but it felt fake. I tried the opposite – to let her avoid tackling the situation so that another character could step up. That wasn’t right.

A hole in my knowledge – and the clue

It was clear the problem went much further than her physical presence. There was a hole in my knowledge of her. Despite all the work I’d done on what she wanted or didn’t want, there was something important I hadn’t yet identified. I was writing someone whose true motives and feelings were very unclear to her, and confused. And this scene was bumping up against it.
The lines she wouldn’t say were the clue.

And then I got it. They weren’t my block after all. They were hers. They were the issue she didn’t want to confront – and didn’t realise.

Two days it took me to guess that minx’s heart. But now I have, I’ve pinned her down. I’ve found the inner voice that justified her during this scene. I knew what she’d say. And it fits. It flows. And not just with her, but with the overall arc for that episode of the story. Understanding this question about her was a valve to let the entire narrative flow again.

And so…
I’ve reminded myself of three principles I consistently return to:

  1. The truth about a scene may lie much deeper than we think. Even with a lot of preparation work, there may be more to learn. We must listen to the instinct that something is wrong.
  2. The thing your character refuses to say or do may not be a story problem. It might be their most important issue. Try working with it.
  3. So much of our work is done away from the page, from carrying the problem with us as we walk to the station, from thinking, refining and persisting.

And my character? Now she’s not bland at all. She’s in a lot more trouble than I’d suspected.

nyn2 2014 smlThere’s more about characters in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel 2.

Thanks for the pic Smabs Sputzer

Has an episode of writer’s block helped you solve a problem? What do you do if a character refuses to enact the plot? Do you have any tips on how you create fictional characters? Let’s discuss!

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  1. #1 by vcoraldean on March 15, 2015 - 7:32 pm

    Thanks for your fascinating insight!

  2. #3 by lubega1 on March 15, 2015 - 7:39 pm

    Well saidxx

    • #4 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on March 15, 2015 - 7:44 pm

      Thanks, Julie! It’s opened up a world of possibilities. This is why I love revision – the refinement, the adding of depth and insight.

  3. #5 by Author Unpublished on March 15, 2015 - 7:54 pm

    Reblogged this on Author Unpublished.

  4. #6 by Anna Dobritt on March 15, 2015 - 9:11 pm

    When I was blocked, I woud jump ahead a couple chapters and work on those. Arter a day or so of that I would go back to where I was stuck and had no problem finsihing and tying it in with what I wrote ahead of it.

    • #7 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on March 16, 2015 - 7:09 am

      Hi Anna! Yes, jumping ahead is another good option. I like to stick where I am if possible, because if I solve the problem it usually creates interesting fall-out that changes everything after it.

  5. #8 by tracikenworth on March 15, 2015 - 9:53 pm

    Characters do their darndest to get us to listen to them!!

  6. #10 by DRMarvello on March 15, 2015 - 10:56 pm

    “Has an episode of writer’s block helped you solve a problem?”

    Yes! In fact, I don’t really think of it as writer’s block. I think of it as plot or character troubleshooting. 😉 If I’m stuck, it’s because something needs to be fixed. The process you describe of stepping back and taking a new approach sounds very familiar. If I run into a brick wall, I try to find a way to go around.

    “What do you do if a character refuses to enact the plot?”

    I’m a planner, but I don’t plan down to the scene level, so my outline has a lot of wiggle room to allow for character-driven actions. If I run into a plot/character dispute, I try to figure out if I’ve chosen the wrong character for the plot or the wrong plot for the character. I usually change whichever feels weakest. For some reason, this kind of dust-up usually happens early in Act 2.

    “Do you have any tips on how you create fictional characters?”

    I have a detailed character sheet with physical, personality, and biographical aspects. Early in my planning, I seed it with as much information as I know up-front. However, I never really feel the character’s voice until I start writing him/her. As the story progresses, many questions come up regarding the passions and motivations of the character. As I figure those out, I add them to the character sheet so I can refer back to them for continuity. I see a lot of give and take between plot and character.

    • #11 by DRMarvello on March 15, 2015 - 11:01 pm

      [Ignore this reply. I’m just using it to enable notifications.]

    • #12 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on March 16, 2015 - 7:08 am

      A comprehensive reply that’s a post in itself, Daniel! Some really good points here – which demonstrate how much plot and character have to suit each other. It’s a fine balance and as we write we often have to revise our assumptions. Thanks for this!

  7. #13 by Ivan Izo on March 16, 2015 - 3:05 pm

    Interesting article, Roz. A trick I use when I get stuck is to write a list of options right where I’m stuck. What would I expect the average person to do? What would be weird or ridiculous? What’s a bad choice, an evil choice, or an altruistic choice? I go for a dozen choices and then edit them down.

    If the list doesn’t work, I take a short story approach to the character or scene. Usually I don’t write anything down; imagining the scene is enough. What if a different character was in the same situation or was dealing with a different group?

    If I still haven’t found an answer, I go to my plot. Where is the story going next? Is this scene going to get me there? Must it be this scene? In the worst case, I’ll go ahead and write the scene badly and leave it for the next revision.

    Thanks again for the article.

    • #14 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on March 16, 2015 - 8:36 pm

      Ah, the list option! I make lists of pros and cons, but I hadn’t thought of choosing options of differing degrees of weirdness or morality. And I like the idea of swapping some of the people. And as you say, we do have the option of leaving it for another revision. Thanks for commenting!

  8. #15 by Teddi Deppner on March 16, 2015 - 9:35 pm

    I appreciate hearing this little tale of “writer’s block”. It’s a good reminder to trust your characters, to trust that inner creative genius that has a plan (even when we don’t see it yet). There are many times I have a niggling feeling about a scene or a problem with a character, but I hadn’t thought to dig deeper and find the true form of the story.

    Especially timely, as I’m wrapping up edits to a short story I want to release at the end of the month and have that feeling about some of it. This should help…

    Thanks, Roz!

    • #16 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on March 17, 2015 - 10:52 am

      Hi Teddi! You’re right about the inner voice and trust. I think that’s one of the important things we learn over time, to listen closely to our instincts and stay alert for those subtle feelings of unease.

      Best of luck with your edits!

  9. #17 by acflory on March 16, 2015 - 10:15 pm

    I loved reading this post because I’ve struggled with just such a character. She has a very important purpose in the story because she is one of the villains, but dismissing her as a simple psychopath was not working. So I put off writing those all important scenes because I could not get /her/ right. Then suddenly I saw how she had become who she was. That knowledge did not change either her actions or her purpose, but it sure as hell changed how she went about doing what needed to be done! And how I wrote those scenes. Such a small thing and yet so vital.

    • #18 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on March 17, 2015 - 10:52 am

      Hi Andrea! What an interesting journey of revelation – as you say, a small detail that made all the difference.

  10. #19 by Kathleen on March 17, 2015 - 12:03 am

    This was a fabulous post. The more time passes, the less a fan I am of the “write fast even if it’s crap, you can fix it later” method. Sometimes you do just run smack into something like this, where something major is just not there and you have to take the time to figure out what’s missing.

    • #20 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on March 17, 2015 - 10:56 am

      Hi Kathleen! You raise a good point here about the splurge draft. It has pros and cons. In fact when I first wrote the scene I didn’t know nearly as much about the character, so she was just being the plot’s puppet. But as things evolved, they showed me this breaking moment where she had to do something different. I couldn’t have deduced all that, though, until I’d let the characters rehearse everything in a very ham-handed version first. But I happen to enjoy fixing. If you don’t, then I can see it wouldn’t have much appeal.

      • #21 by Kathleen on March 18, 2015 - 1:26 am

        Well, that makes sense, too. I don’t mind fixing. I just don’t like wasting time. 🙂

  11. #22 by Sherrie Miranda on March 17, 2015 - 1:10 am

    Reblogged this on sherriemiranda1 and commented:
    I never had this problem, but there were times I knew I needed to tone my protagonist down a bit.

  12. #24 by Suzie Quint on March 24, 2015 - 7:40 pm

    I learn so much about my characters by letting them have a conversation with another character. They tell each other things they won’t tell me. But it’s not all in what they say. It’s also in what they don’t say. The secrets they keep. Best writing advice I ever got was to give my characters a secret, especially if it’s something they’re ashamed of.

    • #25 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on March 24, 2015 - 8:41 pm

      I love that tip, Suzie! I taught a dialogue workshop last weekend and one of the things I focused on was non-verbal communication and subtext. Indeed, your point about secrets gives me an idea for another exercise. Thank you!

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