You've finally plotted out the story that's been stuck inside your brain for months or even years. Because you've outlined your story's direction so well, the words spill onto your page as effortlessly as waves over a sandy beach. Nothing can stop you. Until your main character makes a decision you hadn't planned for, and you're stuck feeling frustrated because your characters just won't cooperate with 'the plan.'
What many new writers find strange is that their characters will take on a personality of their own. They will fight you on that beautiful plot you've developed, and they will try to mold the story to the narrative they see fit. Yes, I realize this all sounds very 'out there' to normal people, but to experienced writers, this is all part of the magic.
So, when clients come to me with this complaint, I know it's time for some major one on one time with the characters. You have to hit the pause button on your writing and set aside time to get curious about your characters and what makes them tick.
There are many ways to do this, but for writers unfamiliar with this strategy, the first step is to release your judgment so your curiosity can step to the front. You're not crazy for wanting to get to know your characters on a deeper level. (Truly, if you're a writer, it's likely the crazy ship has already set sail.) To release your judgment, find a blank piece of paper and brain dump your biases toward the activity onto the page.
Once your brain is clear of its natural judgment, it's time to get curious and choose a method to get to know your characters.
Character Interviews are one of the most basic and straightforward ways to collect information on your characters. There are tons of helpful interview lists online. I've seen interview questions based on book genre or specific character type. If you're just starting to get to know your characters, I'd recommend a more basic list that will work for any genre or character. Some of my favorite questions include:
What was your life like as a child?
What are your most distinguishing features?
In three words, how would those who know you best describe you?
This strategy takes interviews to the next level to help you get to know your characters on a deep level. It's still a series of questions, but instead of focusing on basic information, these questions will often focus on a specific topic or plot point. For example, if your character is struggling between two choices, you might ask:
What do you really want right now?
Does that align with your needs?
How will both of these choices impact your future?
What is the next thing you would do after each choice?
If you've already done the character interview, the answers to these questions may seem obvious. If you haven't, you may need to do a bit more digging to find out how your character's personality and history play into their decision-making process. For this kind of character assessment, I recommend the help of a writing coach. You can find information on my services here.
Role Plays and Dioramas
One of the more unique strategies I've heard of came from the Writing Excuses Podcast. In the episode called Barbie Pre-Writing with Janci Patterson and Megan Walker, the hosts discussed using Barbie dolls to play out various scenes in their novel. While this is a more 'all-in' approach to getting to know your characters, there is a sense of 'feeling out' the realistic nature of specific decisions before writing them into a story. In the podcast, they discuss alternatives to using Barbie dolls and how the dioramas help them visualize various aspects of their novel before they put it in writing. I highly recommend giving this a listen, even if you don't end up using the strategy.
Regardless of the strategy you choose, it's essential to stay curious about your characters' personalities, needs, and goals. As a writer, your brain will likely start to develop a plot around your characters' answers as they begin speaking. Fight this. Stay curious, hear them out, and let them give you a full picture of who they are. Your authentic plot and characters will thank you later.