How to quickly change problematic characters

Image credit: prometeus / 123RF Stock Photo
Image credit: prometeus / 123RF Stock Photo

The bread and butter of fiction is to create characters that take on a life of their own. Sometimes, though, those spur-of-the-moment actions break your plot.

When your characters make mistakes, it can be pretty heartbreaking; you want nothing more than to reach through the pages and stop them. No, no, don’t go there, don’t say that, step back! There’s another way characters can make mistakes though–when they take actions that break your story.

Of course, as an author, it’s perfectly possible to change anything you’ve written. If a character does something that breaks your plot, you make them do something different instead. But here’s a funny thing–characters take on a life of their own, somewhere in the murky recesses of the mind. They feel like real people. So at times when I’m working on revisions, and the plot requires a character to act differently–or, frankly, to become a bit of a different person–I balk at it. (This is normally for secondary characters.) Not that I consciously balk–just that when I try to write the changed scene, it doesn’t come out right. It feels forced and awkward. Flat.

Fortunately, I’ve discovered a pretty easy remedy–change the character’s name! Suddenly, I can imagine a different person, perhaps one who even looks different, has a different background, different goals. One that, as it happens, fits in with the role the character needs to play in the story.

It may not be logical, but I find that there’s a lot of that going on with writing, at least when it comes to the part where you conjure up emotions and people from nothing. They do take on a bit of a life, and something deep down whispers “He’d never act like that”, and it’s that part that sees the character as a living, breathing person and doesn’t care that it’s an imaginary one. And even in revision, you need that part.

Even if it takes little tricks like name-changing to make it co-operate. 🙂

2 thoughts on “How to quickly change problematic characters

  • December 17, 2013 at 3:06 pm

    That’s a great idea! I too have this problem, mainly with secondary characters. They always seem so flat to me, so clichéd. Then they start to take over once they really do come alive, and I can no longer control them. In my last book I had to change lots of the names when my editor objected to having too many characters whose names began with the same letter. It was hard at first, but then I started thinking of them differently. When “Esther” became “Ada” she seemed different somehow.


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