This is a problem I encounter sometimes and have recently. My plot has a trajectory to go in a certain direction, but a character needs to do something to make them get to that point. Sometimes it feel sudden, out of character, or just out of place.
Here’s an example. One of my protagonists in a work in progress is an adult who ran away from her cushy background to try the life of a rogue. She meets a scholar and befriends him, but the scholar is working with his order to instigate political tension by way of my main character. Because of their friendship, he eventually betrays his order and tries to help the main character.
(That’s a really poor description, but hopefully you’re still with me.) But why would this guy betray his order? He barely knows the main character at the point this needs to happen, and I didn’t feel “he fell in love” was a good enough reason. I wanted to keep the character a bit enigmatic, but the problem was he was enigmatic to me.
So how do we solve these problems when we encounter them?
It’s Usually a Development Problem
I mean a character development problem. If a plot point needs to happen, but it doesn’t feel this character would have a good reason to do that at this point, it usually means the writer hasn’t developed the character enough to give them a reason to do the thing.
What this means is that it’s time to go back. You have to go back, maybe ignore some other stuff and other characters for a bit, and develop the one that is the center of that problem plot point. This is how I solved my problem that I discussed above. By happy accident, I stumbled on a writing challenge that lent itself perfectly to my scholar character. I wrote a 3000 word story about him, and boom. I understood him. I established a reason he would eventually betray his order.
So consider ways you can go back and develop your problem characters:
- Write some backstory. Not just a narration. An actual story where something happens, the character does something, and the character interacts with others. It can be as long or short as you need, but write it until it works. You don’t have to include it in the final work, but it might help you get to know your characters.
- Write chapters from their perspective in the story proper. Again, you don’t have to have it in there at the end, but write a bit from the problem character’s POV.
- Specific goals and motivations. Often times the character is there because the plot needs them there instead of the character having an impact on the plot. This leads to vague motivations/goals and vague characters. Instead, go back and work out specific goals and motivations. Watch the character come to life.
- Questionnaires. You can find a link on my resources page. I’m wary of character questionnaires because they take a lot of time and a lot of the information is ultimately useless. Things like “favorite food”, “favorite color”, etc. often don’t matter. I like to focus on it within context of the story proper, because I feel that’s the stronger choice. However, if these help you, by all means have at it.
Look at the Plot
I’m an outliner. I like to have a flexible trajectory of where the story is going. Some writers aren’t and that’s fine too.
As an outliner, it can be hard to set aside “But this NEEDS to happen!” in order to take a good hard look at what the characters themselves will make happen. That’s why sometimes using a mixture of both strategies is a good idea.
If you’re an outliner, look at your plot. Does it have to move in that direction or are there other options that could work and make sense in the context of the story? Would your anti-war, peace-lover suddenly enlist in the army? Is that a character problem or a plot problem?
If something does need to happen, you can always try to force the characters’ hand. If our peace-lover needs to enlist in an army for the sake of the plot then you need to add something that justifies that. Are they kidnapped by the army and forced to serve? Do they get caught avoiding a draft? Is it the only way to support their family? Don’t make it a whim, make it a result of their situation.
Break down your plot into what needs to happen and why. Remember it’s not set in stone. You can change whatever you need. Examine your plot. What needs to happen and what can be reworked?
Set the Stage
My scholar character has to betray his order for the plot. But why would he do that? Presumably he’s worked really hard to get where he is. This is his community. Presumably a lot of his friends and people he cares about are part of the order too. Why would he just throw that all out the window instead of leaving the main character to her own devices?
He needed a reason so I gave him one.
Even if it’s not in your story proper, you need to have this in mind while writing these characters, and you should probably let the reader know at some point too so they aren’t thinking “Wow, that was random.”
For example, in my 3000 word story I wrote on my scholar character, he finds evidence that his order is up to no good and is responsible for the death of a mentor. He doesn’t back out then, mainly because he lacks power and understands that the knowledge is dangerous for him to have. But in the story proper, he’s pushed over the edge by a big event.
I call this “planting seeds” in this context. Plant the seeds for the thing to grow. If your character has to do something, plant that seed for them. Let’s say you have a law abiding character who, for the sake of the plot, has to steal from someone. Plant the seeds of desperation, have them try other methods of getting the money they need, make it a step to reaching their goal. This could be anything. Really. Anything.
Maybe they need to steal because their family is starving. Maybe they’re an undercover. Maybe they’ve always been envious of people with wealth, but trusted the system. Eventually they get desperate.
Plant little plot seeds in your head, and let the thing grow.
Up the Stakes
Another problem with my scholar character was that it was safe for him to stay with his order and completely unsafe to betray it. I knew he wasn’t so selfless to sacrifice all that for the greater good as he saw it. He was more complicated than that.
Part of what I did to rework it was to give him dangerous information that could lead his order to turn on him. No matter what he did he wasn’t completely safe.
Up the stakes for your character. It could be a ticking clock, it could be death, suffering, loss of loved ones, anything. Upping the stakes will make your characters decisions, even if they would otherwise be out of character, make more sense.
Let’s say you have a government person. He finds out his child is secretly working with a group that directly opposes the current king/government/what have you. If this is discovered, his child will be killed and potentially his whole family will be killed too. He loves his child and would do anything to protect them. He’s forced to choose, family over duty. The stakes are now high. He’s potentially screwed no matter was he does.
Narrow their options by upping the stakes. That will force the characters to make a choice, whether they like it or not.
Throw Something Wild and Unexpected in There
Your problem character isn’t doing anything. Suddenly an assassin breaks into their house! What do they do?
When in doubt, throw something completely crazy and out of nowhere in there. Stick with it if it works. If it doesn’t, try again. You can always foreshadow this event later on in the writing process.
This is a way of forcing the character’s hand. Force them into action.
Just write something. Anything. No matter how crazy or out of the blue it seems. You never know what you might find.
Remember nothing is set in stone. You can change it, fix it, rework it. Get anything you can down on paper and go from there.
You’re going to run into problems with characters and plots. Just keep trying. Develop everything and do it well.
Take one of your problem characters and write a story starring them from their past. How does this event in their past explain their choices in the future?