Creative Writing Tip: Two ways to break writer’s block by focusing on character

Who is your character really? Is he who you thought???

Who is your character really? Is he who you thought???

Today I want to talk about changing your characters: not learning more about them, or helping them develop throughout the course of your novel, but really making your characters–whether protagonists or more minor players–different people.

This is something authors can, and often do, though I’ve never done it.

The idea for this post came from my post last week about the movie “Alex and Emma” and creating your plot as you write it. In the movie, Author Alex writes a novel without an outline. One character changes ethnicity three or four times before Alex realizes she should be an American, not a foreigner living in New York.

There are so many ways to give a character a major upheaval:

  • You can combine two characters into one.
  • You can change a character’s gender.
  • You can change a character’s occupation and/or major hobbies.
  • You can change a character’s religious beliefs (or lack thereof).
  • You can give a character a different ethnicity (like Alex does).

MAJOR CHANGES AND WRITER’S BLOCK

In “Alex and Emma,” Alex needs to make his au pair character an American because the plot of his romance novel is stuck.

He needs to make her a rival love interest for his protagonist. Through all of her different ethnicities, the foreigner au pair was a stock character, and a bit goofy and humorous in a stereotypical way, but not someone Adam (the protagonist) could fall for.

(Stock characters are always a bit dangerous to rely upon, as Alex learned and you can read about here.)

The author realized he needed Adam to fall for this woman. Therefore, she needed to be someone Adam could believably fall for. She needed to be a simple, quiet American girl.

The movie–and Alex’s novel–aren’t very good. But I think his strategy of breaking through writer’s block is interesting because it’s so different from mine.

I would have introduced a new character as a love interest. If necessary, while editing the novel I would have edited in earlier appearances of this new character, introducing her before the middle of the novel.

That’s my writing process. I break through writer’s block by following my characters, and if needed, bringing in new ones. I don’t tend to change the ones I have. But changing your characters can also work, which I think is fascinating.

CHANGING VERSUS GOING DEEPER

There’s a big difference between changing a character in a substantial way and learning more about that character. Neither is a better strategy than the other for breaking through writer’s block (though changing your character will probably require more editing work of what you’ve already written).

I’ve learned more about the characters in my fantasy novels as I’ve gone along, for sure. I learned that Kora Porteg’s brother Zacry, while rebellious against schoolwork to annoy his sister, would turn to schoolwork later on in order to prove to himself that he loved and supported her.

I learned that my two gruffest characters, Ranler and Kansten, weren’t really all that rough. They used their “bark” as a defense mechanism and were capable of true and deep attachments. Sure, they “barked” a lot, but they didn’t have much “bite.” They weren’t cruel that way (though they could have been.)

I figured out what was going on beneath the surface of my characters. I discovered why they acted the way they did. I realized that the nobles fighting in the resistance missed their families and their cushy lives; they didn’t talk much about the past because it hurt too much to remember the past.

I’ve never changed who a character was at the core, though.

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I’ve never had a character “turn into” a traitor. Every traitor I’ve written about, I knew that about him or her from the start.

I’ve never stripped a character of magic powers (as in, realized that a character should never have had magic and then edited out his powers.)

I’ll admit, once I mentioned a character in passing early on, not realizing that character would feature further. When I learned this woman, Francie Rafe, would have to come back, I thought more about her and realized she had magic.

It wasn’t like I’d written Francie without magic and changed that, though. It was more that I had never thought about her much, because she was only mentioned in an anecdote someone else told. Whether Francie had magic or not didn’t matter. When she entered the story as a real person, I knew she needed to have magic, and wrote her that way.

Anyway (and thanks for bearing with me), here is my point:

  • I think character, and knowing and following your characters, is generally the key to breaking through writer’s block.
  • You can do this by changing a character in some substantial way.
  • You can do this by delving deeper into a character’s psyche and learning more about him or her.

Tomorrow, I think I’ll consider why I opt for delving deeper, or adding new characters, over changing my characters. I’ve never thought about that before, and I think it could yield some fruitful results.

For now, how do you handle blocks? Have you ever substantially changed the essence of one of your characters? How did it work out, if so?

If you found this post because you’re facing a block (or you’re interested in the topic), I have other posts about writer’s block here you might find useful .

And don’t forget to sign up to follow my blog by email at the top right of the page, so you don’t miss future posts.

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29 responses to “Creative Writing Tip: Two ways to break writer’s block by focusing on character

  1. Hmm, I don’t think I’ve ever changed a character in some meaningful way. I have, as you said, delved deeper into a character. Or realised that the way I was writing them wasn’t they way they were, and changed it, but that’s usually only within a scene.

    Oh, I did have a character who was ‘dead’ turn out to be alive after all. Does that count?

    • hahaha, that is AWESOME!!! I’ve definitely saved and killed characters who I thought would end up the other way around. Never had a character who started out dead end up being alive, though!

      I’ve always changed a character in a scene to make his actions more true to who he is. That’s a great point, Rinelle: sometimes it’s the small changes we need to be looking for where our characters and their actions are in play.

  2. I’m actually going through a character change to some extent now. At least, I think I do. I have a love triangle in my series and had the ‘winner’ picked at the beginning. As the characters evolve and grow, I’m noticing that it might be the other one that should win. It’s getting really difficult to figure out because I’ve done so much groundwork for that first winner and now the one who has to choose is changing. Actually, I’m not sure if this is similar to what you’re talking about. If it isn’t then all I have is changing a few human characters into a cat-people race known as the Calicos. Those are fun to write.

    • Ooh, the Calicos sound awesome!!! (I’m one of those crazy cat ladies, after all 🙂 Makes me think of the cat race who runs the hospital in New New York on Dr. Who).

      I LOVE when characters do that to me. I had a similar experience with the King’s Sons, though not as developed. Before I started writing I thought my protag’s daughter Kansten would end up with one guy in particular. As soon as I wrote the scene where she met that guy and his brother, I knew she needed to end up with his brother instead. Funny how that works!

      • The original plan was going good until the 5th book. I don’t know what happened, but the spark between the original pair dwindled. At the very least it paled in comparison to the other two. Throws a lot of that storyline out of whack unless I decide to stick with it and alter it slightly.

        The Calicos are fun and I have another cat-person race that I keep forgetting to name. They were originally called Beasts, but I need to change that. They’re the wild, primal cat-people (lion-like) and the Calicos are the civilized (domesticated outdoor cat).

        • ooh, two cat races!!! that’s awesome! My first thought about the “wild” race would be to base something linguistically off “Leo” but that’s so obvious….

        • I was looking at the scientific names of a few cats and I thought I found one. Forgot where I wrote it down. They don’t show up that often, so I have time. Calicos, Fireskins (bulky dragon-people), and the standard races are what I’m using now. Might bring a ‘Beast’ in as a supporting at some point.

        • I LOVE Fireskins as a dragon-people. That’s epic!!

        • First one shows up in Prodigy of Rainbow Tower. They don’t have wings or breath weapons, but they are natural spellcasters. Really powerful.

        • that’s a fun way to put a twist on a fantasy staple. Originality is tough…. I’m not that creative that way. I stick with sorcerers and occasionally trolls that are pretty standard trolls.

        • I recently designed my ogres, which came out like horned gorillas with telescopic vision. Precision throwing of boulders is a dangerous skill.

          Loved designing my trolls. They’re another sequel debut.

      • I had the same thing happen as you two. The two “main characters” were OBVIOUSLY meant to be together until I realized…they really weren’t. Lucky for me, I got to introduce a character that I’ve been mulling about putting into different stories (I don’t want to call him a type—but he has existed in various forms in my head) as the real love interest for the female protagonist.

        • that sounds so cool, Wanderer! 🙂 I always think the characters I write that I can see having a role in different stories and in different forms are the ones I like most.

        • I feel like I have a few characters that I’m saving because I don’t want them to just have bit roles in something I’m currently working on. So it’s nice when they get to come out of the woodwork and have a leading role!

  3. What an interesting post and comment discussion. Love that you have such active followers that take the time to give their perspective. Thanks Wanderer, Charles and Victoria: you have made this new writer’s brain whirl with some new ideas 🙂

  4. I have a character who suddenly revealed a dark side and caused my main character to be captured. She was quite nice most of the way through the story before that.
    It’s working out rather nicely however, I always knew I wanted to continue on with the same characters but I wasn’t sure how to. Now I’ve got a novella in process the will lead into the main sequel.
    I do need to edit in a few hints, I want it more believable, but it’s a bit difficult since its written in first person.

    • Colin, that sounds really fun! I LOVE twists like that. Isn’t it great how characters reveal little pieces of themselves to you, bit by bit? It’s not that the character didn’t have that dark side before, right? It’s just that she kept it hidden. I write for those kinds of revelations from my characters 🙂

      • She must have been hiding it her dark side, it turned out to be a plan made long before.
        I just hope I can make it read well once I get it edited.

        • editing is GREAT for that, don’t worry 🙂 I’ve had to edit stuff “in” like that before and make it gel with the rest of novel. You’ll be shocked at how much more developped and complex your plot feels 🙂

  5. One time I had a whole story based around two characters – then I just felt one of them had to be killed off. After that it felt so much better. My WIP I changed two characters’ occupations. At first he was a history professor, but now he’s the lead set designer for a major theatre company. Then I made the other guy the history professor. I love when my characters wind up being the ones to tell me what’s up instead of the other way around.

  6. Pingback: WRITER’S BLOCK: Why I Choose to Develop the Characters I Have, Rather Than Change Them | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

  7. Excellent post. This is awesome: “I figured out what was going on beneath the surface of my characters. I discovered why they acted the way they did.” And that’s my process too. My characters have demanded more of me than I at first was willing to give.

    When I begin a story, I have a surface level approach to character. My characters are mere acquaintances I’ve met at a party. We have a conversation and I think I know enough about them to continue the story. But they prey upon my mind, forcing me to delve more deeply into their lives. They force me to consider what they would do, rather than what I think they should do to fit a plotline.

    I don’t change characters either. Even at my “party phase of understanding” I know who among the characters the traitor or love interest will be.

    • I feel like I could have written this myself 🙂 This is very similar to my approach to character development. I keep things light at first but have a basic idea of who they are, and then go deeper as I advance. It makes for some heavy editing, but it works for me.

  8. Pingback: Authors: Take Brainstorming to the Next Level. Let It Help You EDIT. | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

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