From the Mailbag: When outlines and characters disagree

Time for another common question:

Mr Wells,

I have planned out my story from beginning to end and I had assumed that by creating this plot line, it would be easy to follow. However, I have found that the case is almost exactly the opposite. As I write, I know where the plot is telling me to go but, for some reason, my characters are heading in a completely different direction. I’ve had to pull myself back and delete chunks of my writing because it contradicts with how the plot should unfold. I know how I want my story to start, and I know how I want it to end, but at the moment the middle is all over the place. I was wondering if you have any advice on this matter as I have no idea how to resolve this issue. I have been thinking of writing the beginning and the end and just letting the middle unfold. Is this a good approach or is there something else I could do that would be a better way to go about solving this?

Thank you for your time.


Emily Hawkins

This is a VERY common problem, even for established authors, and it’s one that a lot of people don’t really understand until they start writing. “How can your characters do something they’re not supposed to do? You’re the one writing them, aren’t you?” Well, yes, but the things we write, and the things our characters do and say, are informed by a lifetime of experience, and it is often very hard to write something completely unnatural–i.e., if your character is in a certain situation, doing or saying a certain thing, the natural flow of human behavior will send them in a very specific direction when it’s time to move on and do something else. The flow of speech and conversation will tend in a certain direction, because that’s just how people talk, and this will often come out in our writing whether we want it to or not because it’s hard-coded into our subconscience. This is good, because it helps us write more believable characters and stories, but it can also be bad if you don’t plan ahead.

When the story you’re writing is trending very strongly away from teh story you outlined, the problem is easy to identify but very hard to fix: put simply, either your characters are wrong, or your outline is wrong. They do not work together, and one of them needs to be changed. Figuring out which one is wrong can be very hard, though it helps to think of it in terms of goals: what do you, as the author, want this story to do?

In the question above, she knows how she wants the story to end–that ending is the goal. Her characters, in their present state, do not trend naturally toward that ending, because their personalities are wrong or their skills lie in other areas or their personal goals are simply too different. I don’t know anything about her story, but let’s say, for example, that it’s a story about people trapped in a spooky house, being pestered by a ghost, and it ends when the characters solve the ghost’s problem and put her to rest. Maybe the characters just don’t care about helping ghosts, or maybe their not inquisitive enough to figure out why the ghost is so upset, or maybe they’re too rambunctious and keep trying to solve the problem in physical ways instead of mental ways. Whatever it is, the core problem is the same: the characters she has created are not the kind of people who will resolve her conflict in the way she wants. When she sits down to write them, they naturally tend to do things that lead the story in other directions.

There are two solutions to this problem: first, consider changing the characters. Maybe your swashbuckling hero needs an academic background to help pull her more towards research and away from violence. Maybe you could give the character a personal connection to the ghost so there’s more emotional incentive to help. Second, add an outside force to help guide the characters in the right direction: if they’re supposed to investigate the basement but they’re too smart/scared/whatever to actually go down there, throw in a trap door or a broken floor board and MAKE them go down there. Sometimes a story about characters acting against type is the most interesting choice.

Now, in this case Emily’s goal is her ending, but lets say for the sake of argument that it isn’t–let’s say the characters and the story are the part that excites her, and the pesky outline is the spoiling all her fun. In that situation she would do the opposite: change the outline to better match her characters. If the people trapped in this haunted house want to destroy the ghost, and if you as the author think that would be cool, then go ahead and change the ending, and let them destroy the ghost. You’re not tied down to the first ending you think of–you’re the one who thought of it, and you can change it all you want.

So, to recap: when your characters refuse to follow your outline, decide which one you’re going to keep (character or outline) and then alter the other to match. This can be sad, but it doesn’t have to be–just save the element you’re discarding and use it in a future story.

I hope this has been helpful. If any of you have any more advice on this topic, please feel free to post it here and expand the discussion. And if you have any other questions for me, shoot me an email and I’ll do my best to answer it.

9 Responses to “From the Mailbag: When outlines and characters disagree”

  1. Jaleta Clegg says:

    Great post, Dan. It’s always fun for me when my characters take off with the story. I keep my outline very general just so I can roll with whatever surprises my characters have for me.

  2. This post was incredibly well thought out, Dan. It really honed in on what’s been happening to me lately as I’ve attempted starting my eighth novel. For a long time, when I wrote something, I absolutely HAD to have an ending before I could write the story. It was my goal, it was where I intended to take my characters, therefore I once wrote very plot-driven stories. Through reading authors like J.K. Rowling, Brandon Sanderson, a smattering of Stephen King and even Stephenie Meyer, I discovered how much I purely enjoyed character-driven stories. This works particularly well b/c I write epic fantasy.

    So now, instead of knowing my endings, I anticipate them. Simply meaning that I cast characters in a particular world to fit a particular theme and then permit them to lead me toward the end. I find it a much more satisfying way to compose my stories. This, of course, does not work for everyone nor every genre. But I love it!

  3. Cam Rawls says:

    I had this exact same issue when I wrote the first draft of my first NaNoWriMo novel. What little I had planned before-hand was tossed during the actual writing.

    My main character existed in my notes as a young male and, as I wrote, ended up as a young female. Even while writing she did things that I wasn’t expecting. It all came from her personality and how she thought and looked at situations. I may have built her character but she chose her actions.

    Now, writing for NaNoWriMo may be an extreme way to write, but it helped with the biggest problem we writers experience. Finishing. Or more accurately, not finishing.

    Coming up with the idea for a story is the easy part. Starting to write would be the next hardest. Finishing is what makes you a writer. Or, it has been said, re-writing. Either way, the important thing is to finish.

    You can’t edit what you haven’t written. So make mistakes. Write it poorly if that’s what it takes. Only then can you really look back at its strengths and weaknesses and turn it into a story.

  4. Arlene says:

    Great advice! This is my single biggest challenge in writing. Also, I keep checking in to see if you’ve posted your power point presentation from LTUE. Any chance that will be up soon?

  5. admin says:

    Arlene, that’s been up for so long! You’re losing your superfan stalker status. you can find it here:

  6. Alex Booth says:

    Great way to explain that. I’ve had this problem also. Most of the things I have read talk about how you just need to change your plot, but changing your character is just as valid a way to field the problem. Great explanation, and much more useful than the standard “keep your characters in line” response most people give.

  7. Arlene says:

    Ha! Time to claw my way back to the top. 😉

    Thanks for the link.

  8. So true, Alex, so true.

  9. Hannah says:

    I spent a year writing a book and only at the end realised how whiny and unsympathetic the main character was, which completely didn’t fit the storyline, so I went back and changed the whole thing. It was irritating. Needless to say, that particular novel was never published, and never will be.
    Take that!

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