CREATIVE WRITING REFLECTION: Why I Choose to Develop My Characters When A Block Hits, Rather Than Change Them

Characterization can be that ladder to get you over the wall of writer's block

Characterization can be that ladder to get you over the wall of writer’s block

Yesterday I wrote about writer’s block and two specific ways an author might want to solve that kind of problem with his or her draft.

You can delve deeper into your characters’ psyches, discovering new parts of them that will help them push through the barriers they face.

You might also opt to change a character (or two or three) in some substantial way, making them someone they weren’t before, even if they have the same name (and that’s a toss-up, especially if you change a character’s gender).

I’m not claiming these are the only ways to approach writer’s block. But these strategies just might help you get over the mountain. Personally, I have never “changed” a character to any notable extent.

I have always opted to get to know more facets of my characters as they are. If needed, I introduce new ones and edit in a previous introduction earlier in the novel.

Here are the reasons I prefer not to change my characters:

  • My writing process is based upon getting to know my characters as real people. When you think of characters as real people, “changing” their essential qualities just doesn’t feel right. It’s one thing to realize a character has three brothers instead of the one you always knew about. (That’s happened to me.) It’s another to make that character ten years younger than she originally was and of a different ethnic background.
  • To “change” a character has never occurred to me as an option. Again, I think of my characters as set people. When I have a “plot twist” in life, I don’t think, “the best way to fix this problem would be to make my sisters Canadian.” That would be absurd to think, because it’s impossible. Changing something that fundamental about a character would feel equally “impossible” for me. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad tactic; it just means it doesn’t mesh with the way I approach my fiction.
  • I love any and every chance to get to know my favorite characters better. When a block presents an opportunity to let one of my characters, the way I know and love him or her, show me what s/he’s got, that’s thrilling for me. I enjoy watching my characters struggle, stretch, and grow, because that’s what I have to do as I go through life. It helps me relate to my characters better.
  • I write to figure out how to deal with my current problems. I use writing as a kind of therapy. I think we all do to some extent. Well, I can’t change the fundamental parts of me with the stroke of a delete key. Fixing problems with my draft by changing who a character is at the core isn’t going to help me come to terms with or learn how to face my disappointments and challenges.
  • If I can solve the problem by introducing a new character rather than changing one, that brings in someone new to shake things up. Someone new to deepen the plot, complicate relationships between characters, and help my novel feel more realistic. I love that! Totally worth the editing work involved where previous scenes are concerned: I get excited when the new character makes those scenes more complex, more weighty. It’s almost as though I subconsciously had left a hole for this person to fill.

So, that’s my experience with solving writer’s block by deepening and creating characters, rather than changing the ones I have. What’s your experience with writer’s block? Have you turned to characterization to solve your writer’s block issues?

I talk a lot about writer’s block in my chapter “On First Drafts” in my upcoming writer’s handbook, “Writing for You.” If you’re interested, you can enter a giveaway and add the book to your shelf on Goodreads here: release is July 31! (Coming up, WOW!)

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14 responses to “CREATIVE WRITING REFLECTION: Why I Choose to Develop My Characters When A Block Hits, Rather Than Change Them

  1. I’ve dropped more than one character from a story and introduced entirely new characters, using the same names as the previous characters. I don’t view the original and the new characters as the same. I just liked the names I’d come up with for the original characters and still wanted to use them.

    But if I feel that the story would be better told if I drastically changed a particular character, I’d make the change without giving it another thought. I’m one of those people who rewrites the entire story every time I write another draft, so huge changes in characters and plots sometimes occur from one draft to the next. I don’t change a character as a tool to overcome writer’s block, though, I do it because I think it will improve the story.

    • that makes perfect sense to me. I tend to like my character names and if I ever replaced a character that way I’d probably use the same name too, as long as I felt it also fit the new character. 🙂 If fact, I often have a name before I visualize the character.

  2. I much prefer to introduce new characters to complicate things rather than change existing characters. I just become too attached to my characters as they are to really make any major changes to them.

    • I’m the same way. I get so attached to my characters as they are…. I don’t want to mess with them. For me and my writing style that’s kind of taboo. I could imagine changing out one character for a completely different character, but the character would have to be a completely different person with a different background and different name…. not the “same” person changed.

      • I completely agree. I love my characters. I recently changed my whole story because it didn’t feel like it fit my character. I could used a different character, I suppose, but I wanted to tell her story, not just a story. I can change little things about them, but it’s because I’m really just getting to know them better.

        • I LOVE how you talk about the options here: tell a different story, or use a different character. They’re totally both viable options. The approaches we take depend on who we are as authors, how we approach the writing process, and how connected we feel to the characters. I’m glad you share my opinion and do things a similar way 🙂

  3. I’ve never had writer’s block. I’m curious as to how it manifests. You can always write something, even if it’s crap – and sometimes we have to dig through the dirt to reach the treasure.
    I have changed characters, though. In my first novel, Planetfall, a female doctor role just wasn’t working and everything I wrote for her felt wrong. I changed her to an older man, and suddenly the writing felt ‘right’.
    In my second novel, Backpackers, I merged two characters who popped up at different parts of the book. Both were in love with the lead character, and by draft 3 I’d come to the conclusion that that should have caused some conflict, but the story didn’t suit that kind of rewrite. Merging the characters gave a stronger narrative thrust to the unrequited love and tension against the female lead.

    I agree with you about delving into a character’s psyche to add more layers to a story. It’s how we create believable roles, especially where the layers may not be congruent – therein lies the dramatic tension!

    • I’m so glad you commented! This gave me lots of consider.

      I think it’s fascinating that you’ve never had writer’s block! You can always write something, that’s definitely true, but some writers, I guess, are hesitant to write something they know has a major plothole or doesn’t fit the characters they’ve created. People can definitely define writer’s block in different ways. Maybe you’re defining it differently than I do. Or maybe you’ve never had writer’s block as I define it. 🙂

      For me a block manifests when, although I could keep writing, no way I can imagine advancing the story rings true to the plot or the characters. Each advancement I can contemplate involves inconsistencies that I don’t know how I could clear up, or inconsistencies that I COULD clear up, but I’m not willing to alter my characters or plot as I’d need to in order to make things consistent again. I’m definitely less willing to change characters than some other authors are. I hope that helps to satisfy your curiosity (at least to a small degree)!

      I love what you say about dramatic tension here, as well. That’s so true!

  4. If I’m blocked, it’s usually because I don’t know enough about my characters and how they would react. So, I’m totally with you in the need to develop them. I introduce new characters sparingly, however. If I don’t know the old ones enough, throwing in a new one adds to the wreckage, because here is someone else I haven’t yet explored deeply enough. If free writing doesn’t help, I know it’s time for me to lay this project down for a bit and move on to another one for a while. That was the case with my current WiP. I put it aside for two years and finished a different novel. Now I’m back to the old WiP and have already moved past the place where I was blocked.

    • I agree. It’s ironically toward the end of a novel that I end up adding new characters, because at that point I know my other characters well. Not great for the editing involved, haha!

  5. Hi Victoria. Love your blog, and your advice!
    I don’t know if this is really related, but sometimes when I’m working on developing a character, I will go to a free-form role playing game site, and play the character. I can see how his / her personality and characteristics work around others, and get a feel for whether or not I want to use them in a particular story.
    That can also help me get through a writer’s block by picking up on some ideas from the other people playing the game.

    • Dean, I’m glad you enjoy the blog here! Thanks for dropping by, and thanks for that tidbit of character development advice: that sounds like an amazing way to get to know characters! I would never have thought of that….

      And I used to play an RPG (Warhammer) with friends in college!

  6. Pingback: Authors: How much does it REALLY matter what your characters look like? | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

  7. I do change, mess characters, places, even words (is not a typo) if necessary. I don’t touch the plot.

    But at the moment i’m exploring the psychology of each character, by writing as I am them.

    Also I was an hardcore plotter that suddenly wrote almost without a basic plotlyne. I tend to have strong control over stories and characters, but maybe is time to plot again.

    Art block may happen eyther when You don’t know your character and when you know your character too well, and when you have to write well. And in my case when I love my characters.

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