Characters Won’t Always Do What You Want

Characters Won’t Always Do What You Want

Characters are fickle creatures. They’ll waltz into your stories, demand more than you ever intended to give them, and linger long after you’ve finished writing about them. Mine like to whisper extra tidbits about their lives, which I use for writing prompt responses.

Characters get away with all this because they’re a critical component of every story. You can’t tell a good story without compelling characters – no one will care without someone to root for. Which makes it impossible not to love those devilish critters, even when we hate them. Unfortunately, it also means that characters aren’t always going to do what you want.

Everyone brings their own desires to a story

If ten different people read a book, you might end up with ten different interpretations of its elements. Why? Because every reader brings their own experience to the table when they sit down to read. Writers can use this as an element of their story. (I did when I wrote Crossroads of Frozen Eternity.) It’s also why fandoms often splinter into different ships, or have pet theories about certain events.

This is also why you can’t please everyone (and shouldn’t ever try). By the time a reader reaches the halfway point of a book, they’ve formed their own ideal outcome for the ending, and they’re rooting for it to happen. The key is to make the outcome as satisfying as possible for the largest number of people possible, and to soften the blow for anyone who doesn’t get their ideal outcome.

Because it’s an unfortunate reality that characters have their own ideas about how their story should work. And it doesn’t always match the reader’s expectations. No matter how much you want Character A and Character B to be in love, it might not happen. A might only be interested in having fun with B. A might not be ready to settle down. And no amount of nail-biting or screaming come on at the pages will change that. (Believe me, I’ve tried!)

I read a particular webcomic where one of the characters has been ill-treated by her father. Every chapter I hold my breath that she’ll finally tell him off, but she’s so interested in having a proper family, it never happens. It drives me bonkers. It makes me yell at my computer screen. But although I have strong feelings about their relationship, the perceived discrepancy hasn’t derailed the story. On the contrary, it keeps me invested.

Even writers can’t make characters do what they want

If you’ve ever been disappointed by the outcome of a story, you’re certainly not alone. In high school, I threw at least one book across the room because the main characters broke up after three books worth of relationship development. Looking back from the perspective of adulthood, I can see how realizing their relationship wouldn’t work was a mature choice. But at the time, I just wanted a happily ever after.

You’d think writing your own stories would mean never being surprised or disappointed by the outcome. But you’d be wrong.

A few years ago, I outlined the first novel in Domerin’s series (a novel I’m hoping to finally start writing sometime next year). It was a beautiful disaster in which one of the subplots focused around Domerin falling in love with a particular side character. I was pleased with this outcome, until I sat down to work on some background scenes with my writing partner (whose characters are also involved in the story). Almost instantly, we realized the outline wasn’t going to work. Because instead of falling for the character I wanted him to end up with, Domerin was already in love with someone else. Someone far more involved in the story.

Making the new plot work required substantial edits to my original plan. But there was no way to avoid it. The strength of Domerin’s feelings was such that trying to wrangle him into MY plan, instead of following his, would have made the whole plot feel stilted and probably contrived. So I gave in and gave him what he wanted.

It’s usually best to give your characters what they want

There’s a general consensus among writers that if a character knows what they want, it’s probably a good idea to listen. Even if their plan is counter to yours. Because at the end of the day, the story belongs to them. You’re just telling it. There are days I feel like I’ve donated my fingers to my characters. And some days those fingers can’t move fast enough to keep up with the revelations.

I can’t claim to know where ideas come from. Before I fall asleep each night, I ask myself what if? and answers come to me. I like to think it’s my characters whispering their secrets. Even if it’s something less magical, like drawing a connection between two previously unconnected concepts. If stories are gardens, we should let them grow organically. The best way to do that is to follow the branches toward sunlight and the roots toward water.

My experience has been that letting my characters lead the way strengthens and improves my stories. They feel richer, deeper, and far more satisfying when I give my characters what they want. Even if it makes the ending bittersweet. (But then, I’m a big fan of bittersweet endings – but that’s a whole other blog post.)

So while there’s no way to stop banking on your desired outcome (it’s part of the story experience), it’s probably a good idea to embrace surprises and twists. If the story doesn’t turn out exactly the way you want it to, and if the characters don’t act in exactly the way you’d like, don’t write the story off as a disappointment. Be open to the story the writer is trying to tell and it might turn out to be more satisfying than you initially anticipated.

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