Character block

On December 30, 2011, Tisserande d’encre wrote, I’ve been having a problem with my MC. Some time ago I discovered I didn’t know my character at all. We have tried reactions to problems, thoughts and things she likes, but I still can’t discover her personality! Because of this, I’m unable to say how  she will react to the situation or how she relates with other people. Nothing comes up to my mind. The first pages were easy to write because I knew her feelings, and ten pages ago I still did. But now she has closed to me. How can you get free from character’s block? I still have a plot, but it feels like I’m having the script in my hands and an uncooperative cast! I thought I knew her, but now it seems I don’t. And that doesn’t thicken the plot, it thickens my worries… Any advice, word, help on this?

Character block! A wonderful expression!

These two terrific responses came in to the blog at the time. This one was from Julia:

Sometimes when I don’t really know a character’s personality very well, I take this personality test ( and answer the questions the way I imagine my character would answer them. At the end of the test, it links you to a detailed description of the character’s personality. I’ve found the results to be amazingly accurate. I hope this helps!
And this from writeforfun:

I have two suggestions that worked pretty well for me when I’ve had that problem before. In one version, I knew the personality at first, but it sort of slipped away as I wrote. So, I read from the beginning to the point that I thought I knew her best, and I tried to get a fuller picture of her at that point, and then I did a little writing exercise with her that was completely different from my story, so that I could see what she was like in a different environment. The other time, I didn’t know my character in the first place, so I decided to pick a stereotype and use that as the personality. The stereotype can be whatever you’re familiar with; I chose a dog. You may laugh, but I made the particular character friendly, optimistic, easily distracted, energetic and forgetful. It worked great, because I love dogs, so whenever I thought “what would he do?” I could think, “What would my dog do if he were human and in this position?”

You can also ask your character directly, in writing, of course, what’s going on. You can say, Bonnie, speak to me. Why are you holding back? What do you think of the story I’ve set out? What are your feelings? And give her time and space to answer.

Another possibility may be to bring in a secondary character to move things along. *SPOILER ALERT* In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, for example, the high-handed Lady Catherine visits Elizabeth, and one consequences of this visit is that Darcy declares himself. In an ancient movie version that I despise, she’s a deus ex machina, but in the book, her effect is believable, subtle, and character-driven.

What pushes a character or anyone to action? Often an intolerable condition, which can be serious or not. We write letters to the editor usually when we’re annoyed. Your secondary character, rather than offering pep talks, can so offend your MC that she flies into high gear.

Or, dropping the secondary character, the intolerable condition can be the driving force of the story. Tisserande d’encre, you may not have hit on the problem that will energize your MC, and you may want to think about what that might be. In my The Two Princesses of Bamarre the intolerable condition is the illness of Addie’s sister Meryl, which so motivates Addie that she sets off to find a cure despite her near crippling timidity and shyness. The intolerable condition doesn’t have to be as big as an alien invasion or a kidnaping. It can be a little thing. Bonnie’s Uncle Steve can call her younger brother Lenny “unpromising,” which can set her off on a campaign to prove him wrong.

In Ella Enchanted, the intolerable condition is internal: Ella’s curse of obedience. When Ella tries to persuade Lucinda to rescind the curse she’s treating it as external, which doesn’t work because the problem is inside her.  In Fairest, it’s Aza’s appearance and her own self-consciousness, which is borderline inside/outside. In your story it could be a character trait. Bonnie may be a perfectionist; anything below her standards is a goad to action. Or she may have a super-hero complex; if there’s a wrong, she has to set it right.

As a plot-driven writer, I look for characters who by nature will go in the direction of my story. For example, in The Princess Test, my take on “The Princess on the Pea,” I had to come up with a character who had a shot at a lousy night’s sleep in the lap of luxury, so Lorelei is hyper-allergic and super-finicky. This isn’t very restrictive. She can be overly sensitive and mean or overly sensitive and kind, and smart or stupid and humorless or funny and anything else. She can be as complex as anyone else who has allergies.

Tisserande d’encre, you started with an MC who was defined in your mind. She and the plot meshed at the beginning but then it all blew up. So take a look at your plot. Did it develop in a way that moved away from her inclinations? Maybe you need to redefine her so she can continue to act in your story. Or maybe you should redirect the plot to satisfy her needs that you’ve already established. You may have a character-plot logjam rather than a single character block, and you may have to shift back and forth between the two to bust it open.

You may question if your plot is unified. Is there an intolerable condition that runs through the whole? If it bumps from incident to incident, Bonnie may react to one and be indifferent to another.

Writing isn’t efficient, at least for me it isn’t. You can try a scene one way and then another. Bring in a new character, Charlie, and see what happens. Have Charlie provoke Bonnie. Or make him so appealing that she wants him to think well of her.

Try changing the setting. She may be activated by unfamiliarity, or you may be.

Here are three prompts:

•    Bonnie is depressed. Action seems hopeless. Nothing will do any good. Her alarmed parents start making her wishes come true in order to cheer her up, with results that are temporary at best. Give her an intolerable condition that activates her. Write the story. At the end she can be depressed again, or not.

•    Allie’s father is arrested for shoddy building practices. People have died at his construction sites. Angry citizens are picketing the house. No one can leave without being hounded by the press. Bonnie wants to live her life, go to the local swimming pool, take in a movie, walk the dog, visit her dad in jail. She has a mother, Mrs. Miscreant, and her brother Lenny. Give her an objective and write her story.

•    Bonnie wins the lottery and the prize is in the millions. She is a do-gooder. Get her in trouble with her new life as a helper of others.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. This was all great advice including the two comment responses. I have *definitely* had this problem before so I look forward to putting it to good use next time I have "character block."

  2. Thoughts anyone on this from the website:

    In my story, the Main Antagonist manages to take over the world by somehow becoming mayor, then eliminating the senator, and joining the UN, etc. He asks my MC, who is on a justice fighting team, to become his lieutenant. She accepts to become a mole, but soon cuts ties with her team altogether to make MA trust her more. When she sees her team again, she tells them that she won't make it through the mission, but the others just need to stop MA. I have no plans for a sequel and therefore no character development after her death, but MC does die at the hands of MA. Is this too unsatisfying of an ending? The team saves the word, meeting their objective, but at the same time, not being able to save MC, they fail enormously.

    • Aspiring writer says:

      a way to make the stakes high enough that it feels like it’s a real thing that’s happening and the characters and in real danger and won’t miraculously live because “They’re the main character” is most definitely to kill off your MC. that means the readers will actually have to hope and pray that everything will be okay.

      …I just sort of gave advice to an actual writer. what the heck???

  3. Wonderful post, as always, and at such a proper time, too. I had a character that I discovered as I rewriting my novel for the first time, I think. I loved him, so much so that I brought him back for the third rewrite (if I can even call it that; I never finished the second). But something was off about him, and I was severely disappointed to learn that changing him into a soldier from the innkeeper's lad that he was had made him lose all the qualities that had made me love him. It was heart-breaking. The moment I would slip the 'soldier' label off of him, he would be back.

    The point to this ramble being, it is surprising how just one thing can actually be holding a character back. Like, I know people say that a good character should mould to different occupations and different time periods, etc.–it's a test of his 'realness'. I'm still not sure how strongly that adage holds, but I do know that sometimes different environments can destroy a character, and it's really very sad. D:

    P.S. It has been ages since I've commented on the blog! Hope you're well, Ms Levine. 🙂 I've just been looking back on the older entries, when I first found your blog and such, and had a nice little fit of nostalgia.
    (I used to comment as 'F'. For some reason, it appears that name no longer appears with the comment. O.o)

  4. Oh, I'm flattered to see my advice on here! I'm absolutely giddy! Wait till I tell everyone my comment was on Gail Carson Levine's post! Hehehe!

    Okay, sorry about that. I had to get over my thrill. I've actually been too busy to write lately, or even read the blog except for a quick glance every now and then. It's really quite sad. And what's worse, I'm getting writer's block, I think, or at least, I'm not really dying to get back to writing like I usually am. So strange. And sad. I simply must find time to start writing again.

  5. Hello, I'm Tisserande d'encre!
    Oh my, I'm just flattered to see you considered my question, Mrs. Levine. Thank you very much for the good advice and encouragement.
    I did look at the plot up to where I got stucked and a little voice pointed out some details about my MC and her reactions. It was like she had vanished. She started defined at a 90% I guess, and then started to go down… To the point I was dealing with a decoy and not with my true MC… Hard to explain, though. Sorry for not being very clear on this.
    I did solved my character block a few weeks ago, by the most unpredictable way: She just stared at me and told me to change her name! Yes, her name. After muttering around and "talk" to her, we changed it, and now her name is Cassandra. It was pretty odd (because I don't like that name myself, but she seems happy to have it) and now, she's with me and not against me. Suddenly she's back on track, and me with her! 🙂

    Thanks very much to Julia and writeforfun for their advice. And thanks Mrs. Levine for the support. I really appreciate it, and I'm flattered ^^

    Have a nice week.

    P.S: Sorry I can't comment as "Tisserande d'encre" anymore. Due to some problems I had with my account I decided to close it and create a new one, this time with my true name. But I'm Tisserande d'encre, really! 🙂

  6. Aspiring writer says:

    character personality has been the greatest struggle of my life! can build worlds so easily and when I do they feel tangible, but when I try and predictably write a character my mind goes blank. I know these people because I created them but when I write them it’s almost like I’m looking at them from afar or through a blurry lens. I want to be write next to them and write them so convincingly it’s like they’re right next to you.

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