Suddenly, a stray detail scampers across the beginning paragraph of chapter five, and your story begins to think for itself. ‘No!’ you cry in desperation. ‘Kristoffe Giovanni de Falone is supposed to settle down and have kids with Arianna Raven Nightshade! Not start a violent blood feud with the evil Count Philippe von Vonvon Rochevffort!’ But it’s too late. He’s just killed off Phil’s cousin, consequently been abducted by said Phil, and there’s no way in the sam heck you can get him outta there now…

Understandably, you’re not very happy with that. I wouldn’t be, either.

Well, never fear, the doctor is IN. Just call me Lucy.

[sets up cardboard stand]

Now, Charlie Brown, let’s analyse this as a rather detailed cause-and-effect discussion. Not all of the methods are personally tried and tested by moi, as some are conflicting, and some aren’t my style. They may, however, be yours. This is why I offer them.

By the way, there is also no tl;dr version. Just thought I’d better warn you.

So, here we go.

Symptoms: You wanted to write a medieval romance, and it’s started to turn into a political power struggle. Your girl’s ended up being a far better match for the unassuming childhood sweetheart than for the jerk with a heart of gold. Your main character is stuck in a gigantic pit in the middle of a desert, ditched by his so-called friends. And you didn’t want any of this, because you already have a fantastic plot that you really want to write. This is really not going the way you want it to. Sound familiar?

Diagnosis: Your story has behavioural problems.

Root Cause: Bad parenting. It’s always bad parenting.


Prescription #1: Let the child choose.

Okay, so despite the negative connotations of that metaphor to any parents out there, this can be a good thing. Write it the way it’s going. Just get it out of your system. Or change your plan of the story to include this happening. Or even just let all thought of plot go, and write to see what happens.

To Be Taken With: An open mind. If you want your story to go the way you want it to go, and no other way (which is probably why you’re reading this), this option is not for you.

Advantages of this method:
1. You’re not forcing the story, so it will flow better
2. It will come out wonderfully character-driven.
3. You will develop your characters and get to know them that much more.
4. As SlyShy says, a surprise for the writer = surprise for the reader.
5. Most writers swear by it.

Disadvantages of this method:
1. You may end up being bored to death by your subject matter, and abandoning it. Such a shame, too, as
2. It may get far too dark or, to the opposite extreme, fluffy, for your taste.
3. Your characters may end up saying or doing things you do not approve of.
4. The themes and issues tackled here may get too deep or uncomfortable for you. (e.g. try abortion for a hot topic.)
4a. A side effect of this is that you may start getting preachy, which is really not something you want to do.
5. Your character may choose the evil guy/girl, leaving the sweet, sensitive meant-to-be hero/ine on the sidelines, and you with a guilt trip.
5a. You may subsequently try to fix this guilt trip. But most of the time, you’ll just end up inserting an unbelievable character into the story and/or changing the flow of the story from a classic love triangle to an ‘I already know she’s going to end up with him, and he’ll end up with her, so why am I reading this, exactly?’ situation.


So, what if this option = not you? Well. Most people tend to say, tough cookies; you should just give the story free reign, and there’s nothing else you can do. I, however, have always been of the opinion that the author should at least have some say-so in the writing process. (I’m kind of a control freak. It’s why I wrote this article.) Which brings me to…


Prescription #2: Psychoanalysis.

No, not for you, even though I happen to know you, Charlie Brown, have no self-worth; for your story. This takes a lot more work than Prescription #1. But, hey, if it gives you more control over your story, and you get to write what YOU want, it’s worth it, right? This involves going over and over your story, because rewrites take time.

The Finer Points of this Method:

1. What character traits have gotten your characters into this mess? For example, if your knight in shining armour is both perceptive and curious, with a strong patriotic urge, instead of settling into a quiet life with your heroine, of course he’s going to end up listening at doors, dragging said heroine into all kinds of danger so he can discover if there’s a plot afoot to kill the king! Can these character traits be tweaked or fixed, and other traits given to them that will still allow the plot to go the way you want it?

2. What about the finer points of the setting you have created/dumped your characters into? If the country is in the middle of a war, there is no such thing as a sweet romance. Don’t kid yourself; your hero will get drafted. There will be no happy ending until he comes home. Wars are long and complicated things. The only way he’s coming home before the end is on sick leave. And no hero comes home on sick leave with the measles. He has to be missing an eye or a leg or something. Messy. In any case, when he does get home, you’ll have to write the psychologically-focused scenes where he is still being affected by what he saw happen in conflict. Much simpler never to create the war in the first place.

2a. Of course, if you needed the war in the first place, e.g. to explain why there’s a crucial shortage of certain goods… then, you have a problem. Think harder, cause I got nothing. Hey, you’re the writer! I’m just the doctor.

3. This goes hand in hand with 2. Is there a plot event that can be ditched? If the city gets regularly invaded by pirate slavers, either move it away from the coastline (setting), OR, and this is so much simpler, don’t make the hero walk along the beach at that certain time and place, ergo, he won’t end up getting kidnapped. It’s not a big thing to change.

4. Little bits of a character’s/world’s backstory (or lack thereof!) can sometimes ease their way into a starring role. For example, my friend was writing a story as an exploration of a created culture. She briefly mentions an unfulfilled prophecy. (Here, I will kindly but firmly state that that was not a smart move.) BAM! Suddenly the prophesied child takes centre stage, and culture is the least of her worries.

I had the same type of thing happen to me the day after she told me this. My heroine was a gang member. Her house exploded in a mysterious fire, leaving her homeless. I made the mistake of not explaining the fire away as a bomb falling on it because it was the middle of wartime, or something simple like that. Instead I said that it was a mysterious fire. Now a whole rival gang has grown up from that one missing point of information. In this case, I didn’t really mind, but need I say more?

If your heroine has a random hobby that isn’t important, or is totally out of place (e.g. textiles when she’s also a warrior), what are the chances that your subconscious is going to remember that and say, ‘Okay, we need a reason for that hobby, let me create a conflict that isn’t anything to do with what I was planning to write about’? I’ll tell you what they are: 9 out of 10, People! There is a ninety percent chance of your story developing behavioural problems! And it’s not cause of red cordial.

This should be a good enough reason for you to make sure you can account for your characters and world’s backstories, and make sure there’s nothing that will detract from or overshadow what you’re trying to write unless you’re planning to go back there for a sequel someday.

3a. If you haven’t done this, what are you waiting for? Prevention is better than the cure.

4. What plot points can you alter to get this back on track? The fact that your hero is a brash leader means there’s no way he’s going to stay on guard back at the fortress unless he’s got a broken spine or something. So you may have to break his spine (or something a little less drastic) as part of the plot.

5. Do you just need a new character in this situation? Sure, you can save your old one. File him away. But it may be time to consider a different person in this role. It’s like casting for a movie, in a way. Obviously, Julia Roberts is going to be a better ‘Pretty Woman’ than Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson.

To be taken with: A pedantic, dedicated mind and character, as well as a lot of time and some modicum of skill and energy. This method isn’t for the faint-hearted who tire easy.

Advantages of this method:

1. Control!
2. You get to see how your characters could be different. This allows you to write second drafts of characters, and explore them a little more fully, albeit in a different way to option #1. It helps you to craft and refine your characters.
3. Interesting plot twists can result with the deus ex machina method.
4. Gives you a second look at what’s going on with your plot, and whether you really want to do that particular sequence of events at all.
5. You won’t be bored stiff writing about something you don’t care about. If you’re bored when you’re writing the story, your readers are going to pick up on that.

Disadvantages of this method:

1. It is EXTREMELY HARD (and sometimes traumatic) to either erase an aspect of a character from your mind once you’ve written it in, or even write an entirely new character altogether. You have to slot everything in properly, make sure the characters aren’t forced to advance the plot, but rather drive the plot to your chosen destination instead of their own. Make no mistake, it is exhausting. I’ve given up on this several times. You have to ask yourself searching questions, and revise minor plot details over and over again. Revisions like this take time and care. It is harder the second third fourth fifth sixth time around.

1a. As a result of these ‘new-and-improved’ characters, you may find that they take you in some slightly different directions. This is a side effect of suppression, and it’s like squashing your fat stomach so you can fit into that eensie little top: it just pops out in a different place. Your characters will want some things that you You really really cannot fight this. Keep revising if you hate it. But eventually, when

2. You may have to revise a whole lot of stuff (aspects of plot, characterisation, even setting) before this fits in again.

3. If done wrong, your characters may seem ill-structured, illogical, forced and fake. Big risk to take.

4. Sometimes letting the characters do what they want is just as, or more interesting. Then again, if you’re redrafting the characters because they’ve lead you someplace boring/fluffy/dark/morally questionable, etc, this probably isn’t the case.

5. I will say it again, this is much, much harder than Prescription #1, and is almost always botched up.

Tips for adjustment:

1. Grab an extremely honest friend and get them to read the before-and-after work. They can give you tips on whether it’s working or not.

2. When refining, make sure you don’t refine all the flaws out of your characters. That’s not the sort of refinement that’s needed here. Or anywhere, really.

3. Always keep a note of what your first-draft characters were doing/about to do. They could come in handy later, especially if you want to write both versions.

4. Drop most of your plot and stick with the vaguest structure possible. If you want to write your main characters coming to blows in a dungeon, okay, fine. All well and good. But don’t plot every little detail out, because then you’ll end up with nothing.

5. Save copies of stuff every time you change a plot point or a character.

6. You will get frustrated. You can leave it for months at a time (heck, I’ve got one novel that has been on hold for four years now) and come back to it. Leaving your writing is not like leaving school for the summer holidays and coming back to find that dorky guy who always had food stuck in his teeth transformed into Arnold Schwarzenegger (a la Boris Pelkowski). It won’t change in the meantime. This sounds sad—I mean, who wouldn’t want to leave a disgusting draft and come back to find it edited into the best thing you’ve ever read? (Well, you can get this, but sadly, folks, it costs money.) But look on the bright side: you won’t come back to find that the cute guy who asked you out has gotten really, really fat during the holidays. Yes, this is a shallow analogy.

8. Deus ex machinas may also work when getting characters out of a no-way. The trick is to go back through your story and incorporate the elements of the deus ex machina into the story in an un-blatantly obvious way so that it becomes less of a D.E.M and more of an awesome plot twist.

7. Don’t be surprised when your final product comes out totally different to what you thought you’d write anyway. The difference is, this time it will be something you actually like.

7a. If you don’t like the result, rinse and repeat. Just remember, Margaret Mitchell spent ten years on Gone With The Wind. Dodie Smith painstakingly revised every single sentence for I Capture The Castle, and then revised it all over again. Whilst not well-known to the extreme, this is a beautifully-written book and is a [insert publisher’s name here] modern classic.


Alternative Treatments:


Incorporate elements of both prescriptions by twisting the plot as your characters veer away from your structure, and alternate sub-methods. I don’t really think anything else needs to be said on this subject; you can probably guess the consequences, mindset needed, advantages, disadvantages, etc from reading Prescriptions #1 and #2. I recommend having a little look into this option.

Holistic Method:

Wipe the drawingboard clear (keep a copy of the old one, though) and dive into your story with just a pen and paper, a cast of characters, a setting, a knowledge of what you DON’T want, and an even vaguer knowledge of what you do. It’s still character-driven, but you’ve got some modicum of control over it this time, but without having any idea of where the story WILL go; you just know where it won’t. Your subconscious has control this time. And we all know that it does a better job of a story than you do.


Preventative measures:

1. Think ahead before you write something major about a character or event. What’s going to happen if you put these two characters together, mix in that particular character trait, and add some events? Yeah, that’s right. A big mess, or a plot you couldn’t care less about. So develop it a different way. Thinking things through often helps, added to which, when you’re only thinking about it as a draft idea, it’s a lot easier to re-write your characters.

2. Never think of a plot beforehand. Just let your pen carry you wherever you go. (Not so good for homework essays, by the way.)

3. Go over your characters, plot ideas, and setting. RIGHT NOW. Make sure you haven’t set yourself up for something truly drastic that you will regret later.

Pharmaceutical Disclaimer:
Some of the examples may not be overly watertight. This is because they are just examples, and not matters of life and death. The principle of the thing is still there.


[dismantles cardboard stand]

That’ll be 50 bucks, thanks. No, don’t look at me like that; prices have gone up since the 1960s, you know. Cash, cheque or credit?

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  1. OverlordDan on 4 June 2009, 13:25 said:

    Hee! I love this! Great article, informative and funny, as is the norm for this site!

  2. Moldorm on 4 June 2009, 14:57 said:

    Will surely be useful, especially with JulNoWriMo coming up.

  3. La Reine du Chocolat on 4 June 2009, 15:01 said:

    This was great! Helpful and hilarious!

    Thanks for the Princess Diaries reference, too :)

  4. swenson on 4 June 2009, 15:21 said:

    Ahhh, Kristoffe Giovanni de Falone. You naughty peasant, you, not doing what you’re told! :)

    Great article- it’s very relevant with JulNoWriMo coming up, and it addresses some of the big problems I have with my stories. Those characters! They never do what you want them to do! Usually I just let them lead, but I’ll certainly keep your suggestions prescription in mind for wrestling them back on track.

    My problem with introducing new characters is that I always put them in to fill some role- a message needs to be delivered or a noble needs to be murdered or the lady needs a maid or whatever. But then you start going “OK, but why do they do whatever it is they do? What are they like outside of this role? What else do they do?” And then they start getting so complicated, with a personality and all that messy stuff… and worst of all, they start taking over the story! But sometimes those characters are the funnest to write with, because you never know where they’ll go next!

    Do you take debit cards?

  5. Spanman on 4 June 2009, 15:52 said:

    Steph! You’re awesome! :o

  6. Snow White Queen on 4 June 2009, 19:45 said:

    This is a great article, and very useful for me! I shall have to read it again to fully absorb everything.

    Great job.

  7. Rand on 4 June 2009, 20:22 said:

    Wow, excellent.

  8. Steph on 4 June 2009, 22:02 said:

    @ La Reine du Chocolat:

    There was a princess diaries reference?

    @ swenson: I know what you mean. I normally use the holistic method to start off with- at least, that’s how all my finished stories have ended up. I just tell my characters, “You can do what you want, so long as you end up like this.” It seems to work. But then again, maybe they just like me.

    And no, I don’t. My EFTPOS isn’t that great. Some elements of the 60s remain.

    @ Spanman:

    I know!

    @ SWQ:

    Yeah, sorry about that. It wasn’t meant to be this long…

    @ OLD, Moldorm & Rand:

    Thanks for liking it!

    @ everyone who’s reading this:

    Yes, I do have a compulsion to answer every single person who comments.

  9. Ari on 4 June 2009, 23:39 said:

    Hey, Arianna Raven Nightshade is the best character ever. :P Don’t diss The Raven.

    Great article though, super funny and actually helpful….what a surprise! :P

  10. LordShadowblade on 5 June 2009, 11:07 said:

    This is definetly a great article! Funny how good characters have a mind of their own, isn’t it? Hehehe, whenever I talk about that with my friends who aren’t writers they just think I’m weird. But it’s so true! Thanks Steph for writing this article!

  11. Juniper on 7 June 2009, 09:18 said:

    These problems are why I always plot, brain-storm and fight to create a tight, complete outline before I go to write it. Great article. Thanks!

  12. Puppet on 12 June 2009, 22:14 said:

    Nice article, it just answered all of my concerns and questions. :)