Monday, September 07, 2015

What to Do When Your Character Isn’t “Talking” to You

By Vicky Alvear Shecter, @valvearshecter

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: Writer's block is a scary thing, but we all run into it from time to time. Luckily, with so many writers dealing with it, there are plenty of options to help us all get unstuck when we need it. Please help me welcome Vicky Alvear Shecter to the lecture hall today, to share her thoughts on what to do when those darn characters don't (or won't) talk to you.

Vicky is the award-winning author of historical fiction and nonfiction for kids and adults. Her YA books include Cleopatra's Moon and Curses and Smoke: A Novel of Pompeii, both published by Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic. She also writes about mythology for middle-graders with her latest, Thor Speaks! A Guide to the Norse Realms, releasing this month. Her adult titles include, A Day of Fire: A Novel of Pompeii and the upcoming A Year of Ravens: A Novel of Boudica's Rebellion.

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound

Take it away Vicky...

I have author friends who claim that their characters “won’t shut up.” That sometimes they just can’t write quickly enough to capture the “tsunami of creativity” flowing their way.

Yeah, no. That has never happened for me.

Sure, sometimes the writing is easy, but more often, it feels as if every. Single. Word. Is. A. Damn. Struggle.

Yet despite not having characters fly through my window chattering a mile a minute a la’ Peter Pan, I have experienced its opposite: a character who gives me the cold shoulder and refuses to engage. This happened with my current work-in-progress. My solution?

I fired the character.

That’s right, I told her to make like a shepherd and get the flock out. Make like The Exorcist and get the hell out of my life. Make like…well, you get the idea.

Here’s what happened. Although I mostly write young adult historical fiction and mid-grade nonfiction, I recently met a fab group of writers of adult historical fiction who invited me to participate in a collaborative novel. Our first effort was A Day of Fire: A Novel of Pompeii (which received a number of awards, including one from the Historical Novel Society).

We are in the midst of editing a new project, this time set in ancient Britain, called A Year of Ravens: A Novel of Boudica’s Rebellion, which releases November 2015. Initially, I volunteered to write from the point of view of an ancient Celtic queen named Cartimandua. I just knew I would love writing her.

Until I didn’t.

Even after consuming a number of books about her, I found myself with nothing. No story. No voice. No spark. I panicked but kept it to myself. Then one of the authors in the group said, “Hey did anyone notice that we don’t have a druid in these stories yet?”

My heart leapt. A druid? I could write about a druid. Magic and ritual and even human sacrifice! But I’d already committed to my haughty queen so I kept my trap shut.

Not too long after, in a Google group chat, one author grumbled that a character in her head was nattering at her. Then she complained that this character wasn’t even hers—it was, you guessed it, Cartimandua.

(That faithless wench!)

Clearly, my queen knew from the get-go who should write her story and it wasn’t me. “She’s giving me the cold-shoulder,” I said. “Why don’t you take her?”

She was thrilled and I jumped on the opportunity to write about a potentially deluded druid. Perfect.

I learned a very important lesson: “If you’re not feeling it, walk away.”

Writing is just too difficult to add wrangling with a character with which you don’t connect to the mix. I’m not advising“breaking up with” a character at the first sign of trouble, but at least make it a possibility. It may free you up to see another solution or get the creative juices flowing again.

If you’re not ready to kick your character to the curb, try the following:

Change the point of view. 

Maybe your character doesn’t appreciate the distance of third-person. Try rewriting from the first person point of view (or vice versa). Play with the possibility of changing the character’s age or even sex.

Talk to other writers. 

Sometimes it takes a conversation to shake things up. Another writer or trusted reader may help you reconnect with what drew you to the story in the first place.

Beg and cry. 

Sometimes we need to just ask our characters to help us out. But even that may not work. Like in a classic dysfunctional relationship, you may end up crying while hopelessly shouting, “What do you want?” and still get nothing. But, hey, at least you’ll know you tried.

Sometimes, however, only a clean-break—or even a little time apart—is all the relationship needs. Happy writing!

About Thor Speaks!

One day in the distant future, Thor, the Norse god of thunder, is destined to battle the giant snake that threatens to devour the world. Until then, mortals of Middle Earth look to Thor and his magic hammer for protection from evil. In this third volume of the Secrets of the Ancient Gods series, Thor takes time from his duties to lead readers through the mythological Norse realms, those mysterious worlds that are home to gods, giants, elves, and monsters. He also delves into the age of the Vikings and reveals how they lived and what they believed. Using Thor as her humorous narrator, author Vicky Alvear Shecter provides a well-researched and unconventional nonfiction introduction to Norse mythology. Includes a glossary, bibliography, and index.

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound


  1. Nice post! while not often, this does happen to me. and its so FRUSTRATING. however, I've discovered its usually a result of no sleep and non stop work. however, i think you're absolutely correct when sometimes we just need to take a break to get our creative juices flowing again.

    however, with the exception of POV, it would be a challenge for me to change anything about my characters. especially something as big as their sex. it would just feel too weird, like changing something of a family member or friend. Again, great post!


  2. Excellent advice! I discovered a year or two ago that writer's block is my subconscious way of telling myself something is wrong with what I'm working on. After that realization, the solution became obvious: if something's fighting me, it clearly doesn't want to be in this story. So, I fire it (or, more often, relocate it into my "scrap" folder to be scavenged later for something else) and come up with something else.

    Since I started taking this attitude with virtually everything -- from individual sentences all the way up through major story arcs -- my writing has been much more manageable, not to mention more creative and fun.

    (Of course, it also means I've had to learn never to get too attached to anything in my stories; I never know when I might have to give something the boot!)

  3. Thanks for your comments! KAC, I've never actually changed the sex of a character mid-stream, but I have changed POV, which helped.

  4. Cici Grey,that's a great reframe-- the scrap pile (folders) are always a good idea. That way, I tell myself I'm not really "losing" the writing, I'm saving it for another time.

  5. Ms. Shecter, I just wanted to say that I loved reading Cleopatra's Moon! I recommend it to anybody I know who's a fan of ancient history.

    1. Thank you, Shy Guy! I'm so grateful for the support!

  6. "I told her to make like a shepherd and get the flock out." I really had to refrain busting out laughing when I read this this morning (I'm at work. That wouldn't have been good. LOL) But I totally understand where you're coming from. That's how writer's block works for me. I just wait until I hear the voices again to jump in. Lately, my characters come to me in my dreams and the dreams stop once I write their story. That's how it's working for me right now, actually. The next time I get the cold shoulder from my characters, I'll be sure to try these techniques.

    1. Wow, Evolet! Having characters come to you in dreams is pretty cool! *crosses arms and wonders why MY characters haven't done that* This whole process is so mysteriously awesome!

  7. Fantastic post! And truly - I think we have to stay open to the fact that some characters will try to step to the front as well - maybe not the ones we originally thought should be in front. Sometimes it makes you feel more like a channeler than a writer. Surely these characters are alive and kicking floating somewhere in the ether waiting for us to knock on their doors... :) e