Welcome to another November weekend, and another excellent guest post! Today, author JPC Allen shares her thoughts on the challenge of working with characters who simply refuse to behave themselves. (Who knew fictional people we invent could be so ornery?!) I hope you enjoy her thoughts on this topic as much as I did!
If many of you are tackling NaNoWriMo now, I must warn you. You can be zipping through your first draft in blaze of inspiration, or methodically writing chapter after chapter according to the outline you prepared in October when trouble strikes. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a plotter or a pantser or in between. You never know when a character will turn into a problem child.
I ran into this frustration while writing my YA mystery, A Shadow on the Snow. My main character Rae belongs to an extensive, extended family. I decided to give her father an older sister, a younger sister, and a younger brother. The dad and his two sisters came to life early and easily. But Younger Brothers turned into a problem child.
Since we writers can’t administer a time-out, try the five techniques below.
Change the Name
Naming characters appropriately is critical for me when developing them. If I give a bubbly character a name that somehow suggests a quiet, sensitive type, the character won’t work for me. But I liked Younger Brother’s name. I’d named him Beej, running together his initials, B.J. I thought that worked well with his older brother who also went by a nickname—Mal, short for their last name Malinowski. So the name wasn’t the problem.
Change the Face
This is similar to changing the name. Usually when I build a character, I start with a face that I’ve seen somewhere and that signals a certain kind of personality. Younger Brother’s face suggested a reserve intellectual, but I had another character like that who was working well within the story. I couldn’t have two characters that much alike. So I thought maybe I just needed to …
Write a Scene with the Character
This technique had worked with Rae’s grandmother. I knew I had to have a grandmother, but she proved a slippery character, her personality assuming all sorts of traits as I tried to structure her in my mind before I began writing. Finally, I decided to stick her in a scene and see what happened. Pretty soon, Gram’s mellow, warm-hearted personality shone through, making her a nice contrast to her son, Mal, who is a worrier.
But when I wrote a scene with Younger Brother, he became irritating, sounding whiny and immature. Maybe I should try …
Could I combine Younger Brother with the other intellectual character, creating a new one? Decidedly no. The other intellectual was a possible love-interest for my main character Rae and Younger Brother was her uncle. Combining would not work. The only thing left do was …
Eliminate the Character
I offed Younger Brother in cold-blood and with a lot of relief. I simply didn’t need him. I think the reason I worked so hard to keep him is that I often create groups of four characters. I’m one of four sisters, so I understand how that group dynamic works. What I had failed to realize was that I already had a group of four characters. Older Sister married the neighbor boy, whom Rae’s father Mal and his sisters grew up with. So Neighbor Boy is like a brother. And I’ve had a ton of fun writing about how the brothers-in-law take jabs at each other.
Have you had a character turn into a problem child? Or have you read a book where a character just didn’t work?
About the Author
JPC Allen started her writing career in second grade with an homage to Scooby Doo. She’s been tracking down mysteries ever since and has written mystery short stories for Mt. Zion Ridge Press. Her Christmas mystery short story, “A Rose from the Ashes”, was a Selah-finalist at the Blue Ridge Mountains Writers Conference in 2020. Online, she offers tips and prompts to ignite the creative spark in every kind of writer. She also leads workshops for tweens, teens, and adults, encouraging them to discover the adventure of writing. With deep roots in the Mountain State, she is a life-long Buckeye. A Shadow on the Snow is her first novel.
Many thanks again to JPC for sharing these tips! I’ve had “problem child” characters in both of my last writing projects. Actually, one of the characters in Where Shall I Flee? was supposed to die early on. He refused, and became a main character which created all sorts of plot problems…
But I digress. She also has a book coming out soon, for which I am SO EXCITED! I love a good mystery, and I’ve greatly enjoyed her writing style in her two published short stories that I own. Here’s the blurb for the upcoming A Shadow on the Snow.
“Nineteen-year-old Rae Riley can barely believe her gamble paid off. After spending seven months investigating the identity of her father and whether he tried to murder her mother, Rae has been accepted by her dad, Sheriff Walter “Mal” Malinowski IV, and his immediate family with open hearts. And for the first time in her life, Rae is making friends, jamming with three cute cops who play outlaw country music.
But someone is leaving Rae threatening notes, reminding her of her late mother’s notorious past when Bella Rydell wrecked homes and lives during the few years she lived in rural Marlin County, Ohio. Fearing the threats will make Mal and his family reject her, Rae investigates the mystery on her own. But her amateur sleuthing may cost her the father she’s always wanted when the stalker changes targets and takes dead aim at Mal.“