Untangling Character Problems

Last Friday, I didn’t get many words written. I noodled around, erased a few scenes on a chart, added a new one. Made a circle around another in red pen to remind me of what needs to happen. Noticing that I wasn’t being very productive, I met a friend for a sandwich in the afternoon.

Since Saturday is a make-up day, and in this case, it was a very mood foggy day (my favorite), I sat down to work. Still not a whole lot. Couple of pages, and they were not speedy. So I threw in the towel and baked two dozen red velvet cupcakes (get the recipe at Pinch My Salt)—truly heavenly.

Now it’s a Monday morning after a relaxing weekend with my beau. Visited with friends, went to a yoga class on Friday and Nia on Sunday afternoon, so my body is nicely exercised. I had plenty of sleep.

And I’m still stuck. It’s not writer’s block, because I don’t believe in that. There is always a reason I bog down in a story. Always. The girls in the basement throw on the emergency break, yelling, “Hold it right there!” And I’m marooned on the side of the mountain, halfway up, looking backward to the valley and up far, far, far away to the top.

Since I’ve written more than 30 novels of varying lengths and depths, and this happens in every single book, at least once or twice, I don’t freak out anymore. It’s exasperating, because I like to get going at a clip and show up, write my pages, and have time left over to do other things with my day. If I’m halted on the side of the mountain, it means I have to do more work. Or conversely, I might need a rest. (If Hilary, my bad Girl in the Basement, decides she’s going to sleep all day, there is virtually nothing I can do to make her get moving.)

Today, I am well rested, so there will be no slinking off to the movies or curling up to read all day, despite the fact that I’m longing for exactly that. Instead, I’m nudging my gut to see where the problem is. Plotting? Not exactly. Pacing? No, it’s not perfect yet, but this is a rough draft and that just happens. It’s just that I can’t quite see the scenes just ahead. My imagination is very visual and auditory—the next scenes should be like throwing open a window and stepping into the world.

At the moment, I’m just not seeing these next bits very well. They’re fuzzy.  I can visualize the ending and some of the major scenes a little later. Just not this next little bit. It is, I suspect, one of the main male characters. I don’t know him well, enough. His conflicts are not clear to me. Why is he so invested in his choices? What is his life story? What does he need to learn? What does he have to lose? What’s at stake? And the eternal, evil writerly question: how can I make life harder on him?

Later this month, I will be discussing my plotting methods over at Writer Unboxed (where they are doing plot-focused blogs throughout the month). Today, I’m working with character, and my plan follows the same pattern every time. I need to do some research. He has a career I know a little about, but not much. Finding out what people in his career do every day will help me see him more clearly. He had a bit of an exotic past, and I need more information about that, too. So, I’ll do all that reading, make some notes, then walk my dogs and post this blog.

Then the girls and I will gather up our tools—notebook and favorite pens and a few character worksheets I’ve developed over the years from various sources—and we’ll walk down to the local Starbucks. There, I will write a first person autobiography from this character’s point of view, and fill out the character sheets. It sounds a little like play, which is partly the point. Holding too tightly, fretting and worrying, is guaranteed to freeze the entire story in place and freeze my poor writer’s heart. The tense side of me wants to be able to write a page count for the day on my dry erase calendar, and I feel slightly anxious about it. But forging ahead is not the way for me to get quality work (others have different techniques, like the Don’t Look Down draft Crusie advocates). If I want to avoid a really nasty log jam later, the structure work needs to be done here, and as long as I keep it loose, keep playing, keep dancing and singing along, it will work out. It always does.

What tricks do you have for solving character problems?

Flickr creative commons photo by g-hat  (check out her photos of a derelict UK factory, covered inside with colorful graffitti)

4 thoughts on “Untangling Character Problems

  1. I have the character write me a letter telling me what’s on their mind, what they’re mad at me about, what’s causing them to hold back. It usually starts like, Dear Laura, You asked me to tell you why I’m not being cooperative, so here goes….

    So far, it always works. They always tell me when I give them the opportunity.

    Best to you.

  2. Great suggestions for what to do when you come to a screeching halt in a story. I, too, have found that it usually happens when I don’t know my characters well enough.



  3. You wrote: Holding too tightly, fretting and worrying, is guaranteed to freeze the entire story in place and freeze my poor writer’s heart

    Argh! I so hear you on this. I find I often need to simply ‘walk away’ so that rather than my anxiety clogging the works I allow my characters through. Usually they decide to come through as I’m dozing off at night and if I don’t write down those thoughts in some sort of semi legible chicken scratch scrawl in the dark I don’t get any further the next day either. Hmmm, maybe I should nap during the day and see if that helps…

    BTW, Barbara, I chuckled when I saw the photo in this post. I had no idea we even had quicksand here in NZ, goes to show how much I know! The Waitakere Ranges are a distant grey/green blur on my western horizon on hazy days but a sharp dark green outline against the sky on clear ones. Haven’t been out that way in ages!

  4. Oh, I am so there right now! Yesterday I hauled out the paper and the pins and started drawing diagrams. I have to get over the guilt about this being part of the process and that although no words will come today that they (hopefully) will come tomorrow.
    Thanks for the timely post and to facebook for me even seeing it!

    Fiona Lowe

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