I will thank the Lord with all my heart as I meet with his godly people. How amazing are the deeds of the Lord! All who delight in him should ponder them. Psalm 111:1-2 NLT

Friday, March 18, 2011

Help! My character isn't listening to me!

Have you ever been asked a life altering question? (Besides this one, I mean.) It’s rare, I know. But yesterday, my coworker asked me just such a question.

Do you know how to play softball?

Hm. Well. Technically, I am familiar with the sport – so yes, mentally, I know how to play softball. Does my body physically remember how to play softball? Is it like riding a bike? (Aside, has anyone ever tested the theory that a person really can get back on a bike years later and ride it?) If, yes, I have a decent shot. If no, don’t over commit, here, self.

I probably stink, it’s been years since I’ve played. I have six million other things I need to be doing. There’s probably a registration fee I can’t afford. My husband might want me around on Monday nights. I might get hurt and be unable to do the other things that I’ve already committed to.

And yet, before I can stop myself, I say I am exceedingly familiar with the game of softball. (Slow pitch, right?) And somehow, moments later, I’m the final recruit for the office softball team.

Sometimes the characters in our novels surprise us. Veer off course. Do something we never saw coming – just like I did when I agreed to play softball with my coworkers.

Why do our characters do this? It’s all about their values and dreams, about what really motivates them.

Let’s turn me into a character and examine my motivations.

-Well, I used to play. And I used to be decent. And I’d like to think I still am.
-I’ve always wanted to be invited to play office softball. (No, really, sad but true.)
-I am a relatively new employee, so it would be a good way to solidify some friendships at work.
-If I say no, they’ll ask someone else.

Despite all the reasons I shouldn’t play office softball, my desire to solidify office friendships, combined with my secret dream to be included and my competitive nature, led me to accept.

See how understanding what your character’s value can motivate them to travel new paths? Has a character in your story ever done this to you? Can you find the value that motivated them to make that choice?

Happy Writing,

Amy Lindberg


  1. Amy~

    You always make me laugh! I love that I can "hear" your voice and "see" your smile. Not only all of this, but what an amazing object lesson as well! What a great way to illustrate finding the motivations of our characters, especially when they seemingly veer off the track we have so painstakingly built for them. I think it can also work in reverse, if we write our character doing something, we can look deeper into her (or him) to see if, based on motivations, it is something she (he) would realistically do. Thanks!!

    And yes, I believe one can successfully ride a bike after decades away. It is literally a pain in the back side, but it can be done. =)

  2. When I first began writing seriously, I thought I was in complete control of my characters. I knew what they would say and do each and every time. Boring! When I started my second novel, I began the same way. Then my character started saying and doing things I didn't expect. I shook as I typed, so excited to see what they would do next. It was a brand new sensation to me.

    I've learned since then NOT to share this exhilarating experience with friends and family who do not write. My family responded by handing me the phone number of a psychiatrist. Really.

    Now when I laugh out loud at my characters or get teary-eyed, I make sure no one else is around. And I keep it to myself.

    Thanks for the post!

  3. I'm constantly irritated with my characters for pulling stunts I did NOT okay them to do.

  4. Great post, Amy! While plotting my first book, my characters surprised me in a big way. The sidekick decided that SHE wanted to be the heroine! How rude, right? She totally overruled me, upstaged my original heroine, and took over the story. So I switched my heroine and sidekick around. :-)

    What's funny is that a similar take-over happened while plotting the sequel. The sidekick became the heroine. The original heroine decided her life wasn't worth mentioning, so I erased her existence. And a totally new guy sidekick/romantic interest appeared. So obviously I'm not in charge, my characters are. :-D

  5. I loved your post, Ames--and you are so, so much braver than me. I would only admit to being able to spell "softball."
    And I love the comments everyone's posting--we all seem to have unruly characters in our lives!! My ms starts with characters misbehaving . . . and it doesn't stop through the rest of the book!

  6. Amy, I loved your post. Shortly after I got my first teaching job, MANY years ago, I was asked to join the school's softball team. I was flattered, and I wanted to feel myself competent in this sport, even after not playing for a number of years. I loved the feeling of acceptance. The hard thing for me was that every time I ran to first base, my calf muscles tightened up! My body never has cared for running. :)

    Thanks for the word picture and relating it to our characters. Just this week, my heroine did something I did not ordain for her to do, but it is a good thing for the story, and it will be a huge learning lesson for her. Thanks for challenging me to be more open with the reins I "think" I have to control my characters. :)

  7. Oh yes, one more thing. :) I agree with Heidi. You can still ride a bike, even after decades of not being on one. She's right--your bum hurts. Also, it takes time to regain the balance and confidence you may have had when you were a kid. I did it last May, the first time on one in almost 25 years! :)

  8. Fun post, Amy! I can totally relate--both to agreeing to do something (even though I have grave reservations) and having characters do the unexpected. But having characters act differently than is spelled out in the plot keeps our writing fresh, even if it takes longer to figure out what's supposed to happen next.

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  10. {UGH...TYPOS...SORRY =S }

    I am laughing at all the great stories of pushy characters. I love it! When I decided to return to writing after 20+ years, I thought I should do a little research and give myself a refresher course. I bought a gazillion writing books and dug in. At some point, I read somewhere about characters that had hijacked one writer's story and I thought, "Um, you're the writer...you are the only REAL human...how can you lose control of IMAGINARY characters?!"

    And then I actually sat down to write.

    It is the oddest feeling to be typing along and suddenly realize these imaginary people have stepped off the page and are calling the shots! My hero went from being a farmer to being a veterinarian because my heroine had cats. And at one point, he suddenly had a red-headed bombshell vet's assistant. She was actually the sweetest little gal, but where in the world did she come from? Because she did NOT exist when I sat down to write that day; apparently my heroine needed a little more competition than I was already giving her! It's so hard to explain to non-writers, but boy-oh-boy am I ever glad that it happens to you all too!!! Thank you for validating my madness! =)

  11. Heidi, Christine, Jessica, Angela, Beth, Jeanne, Roxanne...I am SO, SO glad that I am not the only one that has characters running off course here.

    I'm so happy my family is not the only family that thinks I truly do need professional help!

  12. Team, thanks for sharing some of the crazy directions your heros and heroines have taken. It's so much fun to hear the ways they can deepen and alter one another's stories.

  13. Thanks, Heidi and Jeanne for clearing up the "it's like riding a bike" debate. I believe you guys.

  14. Oh, one more thing...I will keep you all posted about my success or failure on the softball field. I see some disasters in my...er...my character's future...

  15. Love, love this post! Sounds so...Amy. And yes, Amy, you can ride a bike after 50 years--keep that in mind. Whenever the weather permits, I ride my bike everywhere--in our small downtown area, to the grocery and drug stores, the bank. Most people admire that I park my car even though they think I'm crazy.

    And it's great when my characters to something unexpected. It's like "YES!" (fist pumping) I think that's when writing is the most fun.

  16. Thanks Pat! Another confirmer...you can ride a bike after many years! Hope the same holds true for softball!

    I'm glad you think characters doing something unexpected is fun. I still get a little perturbed with them like Jessica!

  17. Shoot, TEE, did I spell perturbed wrong?

  18. Great advice! I have noticed that about characters and was wondering if that was normal. I guess it is!

  19. Yes, Faye! You are completely normal. I'm so happy you have discovered, as Pat says, when writing is the most fun!

  20. Ames!
    I loved the word picture and the example you wrote. I really need examples to learn new things.
    I don't know about remembering how to ride a bike. I tried again (after 15 years) last summer and my kids still are laughing about it TODAY.


  21. Funny AT (aka Alena)! I can't believe they are still laughing about it. I think we have three in the camp that it is possible and one in the not-so-much camp!

  22. I'm super late at rdg. posts because of being away, but one thing I know and appreciate about you from hearing even part of your 1at WIP at Story Crafters is that you skilfully online research to create very convincing storyworld. You described an ER setting and Doc and had me fooled, which is terrific as one of my sons is an ER Doc, I know that world, and you had me fooled that you were smack dab inside of it, too.