Stay True to Your Characters

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This past weekend, I came to one of the harshest realities an editor-author can face: my characters weren’t working. I recast scenes; I built out new backgrounds; I even experimented with dialogue and point of view. I could practically see my two protagonists dropping to my office floor cross-legged, arms crossed, and full-on pouting.

“Are you actually having a tantrum?” I asked, astounded at the obstinance on display.

They spoke in unison: “We’re not moving until you agree to show us as we are.”

“What does that even mean?” I almost stamped my foot in frustration.

Male Protagonist 1 just smirked. “That’s up to you.”

Characters are the people who tell the stories filling personal bookshelves and libraries the world over. They’re the human representation of universal truths, injustices, and all that is the human condition. Indeed, art imitates life, but life also imitates art.

So what happens when the character you imagined, the one you meticulously planned for after hours of rambling voice recordings, hundreds of sticky notes, and more than one snapped pencil? I’ve got a few suggestions.

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Reverse Outline

Typically a principle reserved for nonfiction writing, reverse outlining is a post-draft look at what is on the page versus what you imagined would be on the page.

Your draft is done. You wrote it according to your prepared outline in four to six months. After resting it for a bit, you finally pull it off the shelf to see how much of a mess it is. As you read through it, have a notebook of some sort nearby. Maybe even consider index cards. After reading each chapter, in no more than three to five sentences, summarize what just happened. Once you finish, look at the events that are on the page and compare them with the events you had planned in the order you had them planned.

Does the draft match up with your outline? If it does, but things still feel stilted, wrong, or just plain ick, question which parts cause those feelings. Even if you can’t put a name to your emotion in the moment, the reader in you knows there’s a fix that has to be implemented at some point.

If the draft doesn’t match up to the outline, take some time to decide if that’s a good thing or not. Stories can absolutely go off the rails, curtailing every signpost warning against that very thing. The post-crash image can either be an improvement or something to take with the following.


Novelist, screenwriter, and game designer Chuck Wendig recommends “writing the character before you write the character.”

I know, it took me a second or three to wrap my head around that one, too. It makes perfect sense, though. Take your character out of the current manuscript. Throw them into the deep end of an entirely different world, scene, or relationship. See what happens.

Writing prompts work best for these situations. There are plenty of books on these wide interwebs, and even more sites that offer free daily prompts. Prompts help you refine your writing when it comes to fiction storytelling principles: POV, settings, dialogue, conflict, and even pacing.

Even as I work on my own draft, I have a prompt book that I’ve been working out of for seven months. They don’t result in Pulitzer Prize-winning stories, but I’m able to see my improvement in several areas. I’ve even been shocked when I pen out a 1,000-word story that’s in a subgenre I didn’t believe was a good fit for me.

Of course, remember that these experiments are typically F.Y.E.O. For Your Eyes Only.

The flash-fiction and short stories I post using writing prompts don’t feature any of my characters-in-development. They’ll make their public debut in the pages of my novel. Eventually.

Go Back to the Drawing Board

A third (and likely final) option is to go back to the beginning. Did your story originate with a genre? A plot? A character?

Depending on your writing style, one of those options usually comes first. A spy thriller originates differently than a queer military romance which originates differently than a cozy police mystery. However, it all comes down to character, to whose story the reader is supposed to follow, whose ultimate outcome readers must see through.

Like I mentioned before, this decision takes time to reach, and it requires a certain amount of soul-searching. You have to ask how much you’re willing to compromise to tell the story you want to tell. Be forewarned: don’t start with the character.

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I’m aware that there are those authors who indeed first come up a general plot arc before plugging in the stereotypical characters into their appropriate roles. I’m not one of them.

When I work with fiction authors, I stress the need for well-rounded, realistic characters. These well-rounded characters don’t (and won’t) show up out of the blue. It takes real effort to build them up, from the inside out.

These three tips can get you started on reflecting not on who you want your characters to be, but on who they need to be in order to capture and hold your ideal reader’s attention. One word at a time.

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