When Your Characters Outsmart You


pawn-by-amy-humphriesI was deep into writing one of the central subplots of my novel, when suddenly the whole thing fell apart.  You see, I had presented my character with an obstacle, but the moment she came up against it she came up with a brilliant solution.  Problem solved.

Unfortunately, my character’s stroke of brilliance presented a problem for me.  How do I trap a character in a situation that she’s determined to pull herself out of?

I want to portray a woman who is smart, determined and resourceful.  Having her overlook an obvious solution would be out of character, and it would take more than a minor inconvenience to slow her down.

Here are some solutions I came up with:

  • Give her a strong motive.  Yes there’s a way past this obstacle, but it includes compromising her values in a way that seems unforgivable.  She is forced to find a less effective (more interesting!) solution.
  • Tweak the circumstances.  Of course she comes up with ways to solve her problem! However, when she tries her plan, it doesn’t work out.  Or possibly, when she’s about to try, something unexpected comes up which makes it impossible for her to go ahead with her plan.
  • Make her wait.  She’s solved the problem, but her solution relies on a few key things.  Maybe she’s relying on someone who hasn’t followed through on their promises.  Maybe she still needs one more key piece of information that she can’t get her hands on.  For some reason, the character can’t put her brilliant plan into action.
  • Scrap the sub-plot.  If it’s taking away from the story instead of adding to it, it needs to go!

Thank goodness first drafts aren’t supposed to be perfect!  I certainly have a lot of reworking to do to make this story work!

Have you come across issues like this in your writing?  Which is the best approach to keeping your characters in line?

Art credit: “I Will Never Be Your Pawn” by Amy Humphries, used under CC license

9 thoughts on “When Your Characters Outsmart You

  1. Hmm, this is a good question. I generally don’t keep my characters in line, but I let them tell me where they want to do. Of course, the character’s decisions have to make sense to the story. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I like your approach! I’ve let my character take a few detours, and it usually turns out to be better than what I’d originally planned. Maybe I should stop fighting her craftiness and let her do her thing! (I’m just bitter because I’m probably going to lose several pages of writing, but if it’s gotta go, it’s gotta go!)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I think this problem among others is what eventually led me away from writing fiction. I could never let the story tell me what it wanted to be, and when I got stuck, or outsmarted, I was trapped. I am glad to hear that you are working with your story instead of against it!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! 🙂 It’s definitely a pesky problem–and one that has to be dealt with over and over. I’m letting a lot of smaller issues go until I have a finished draft, which means a LOT of work in revisions! Hopefully I’ll work it out, though.


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