How To Get Out of Your Character’s Way

Our guest today is Amy Sue Nathan, a debut Women’s Fiction Author, with great tips on how to get out of your character’s way.  I’ve heard great things about her novel, so be sure to check it out! Here’s Amy:

When I hunkered down to write a novel about a divorced mom in the suburbs whose ex-husband had suddenly died, I had a little bit of trouble separating the words and actions of Evie, my main character, from my own words and actions.  After all, I was a divorced mom in the suburbs whose ex-husband had died suddenly.  Yet, I wasn’t writing a memoir, nor was I writing a novel ripped from the headlines, based on a true story, or even inspired by one. While the springboard for The Glass Wives was born in truth, I wanted the main character, Evie, to bear little resemblance to me. But when I started writing, I kept forgetting that.

I inserted myself into the pages and the characters (all of them) much more so that was necessary, or warranted, or let’s face it—desirable.  This method did not allow for individual characters to take shape with their own arcs, their own back stories, and their own drive toward the end of book.

In those first drafts the characters were all different parts of me instead of whole characters unto themselves. No wonder they seemed so familiar.  No wonder the story had little conflict and lots of resolution (chronic conflict-avoider at your service). No wonder the writing was, dare I say, flowing.

After getting plenty of feedback on the quiet nature of my story, how the conflict wasn’t intense enough, the characters exciting enough, I was convinced that no one “got it”. What did they know?  But the story taunted me.

I needed to tell the story of a single mom and a newfangled family. I wanted to tell the story of moving forward after exponential loss.  I needed to give single moms a voice louder than my own.

So I kept writing.

Then one day, while revising a tense, emotional scene for the umpteenth time, a scene I had been told was not tense or emotional enough (jeez) I kept thinking how I would never do or say the things Evie needed to do and say in that scene.  It was barely believable, I thought. I felt bullied by my attempts and annoyed at my intention to deviate from reasonable ways to behave in that situation.  The situation I’d created on the page!

And then it hit me.

I didn’t have to think it was normal or okay or reasonable or meaningful or necessary.  Evie did.  She was her own person.  And frankly, she told me to go blow. To go blow and keep writing, I should say.

I adopted WHAT WOULD EVIE DO as my mantra and posted W-W-E-D around my computer, my desk, on the notepads that surrounded me in my various writing stations around the house. Some muses have harps.  Some muses have wings.  My muse had four simple letters.

Seeing the WWED acronym everywhere changed my thinking as if it were a light turned on after hours in a pitch-dark room.  It was so damn bright it almost hurt, but made everything clear.

After that, anytime I thought about myself in a situation presented in the book, I said it aloud: What Would Evie Do? It was direct. It got me back on track.

When I wasn’t writing, but was thinking about writing or when a scene or line of dialogue was harassing me while I was doing something else, I doodled WWED instead of doodling hearts and flowers and squiggly lines. I wrote it on napkins, grocery lists, and a few times, on the top of my hand. This acronym lifted me out of my own head and life and landed me in Evie’s.  And then I grew quite comfortable there.

The result was that Evie behaved very differently than I would most of the time.  It became natural to write in Evie’s headspace, on her behalf, fighting her battles, suffering her losses, winning her wars, and baking her cookies.

Without that writing and character revelation I believe that The Glass Wives would be in a drawer, or defunct file folder or in yet another round of mild-mannered revisions.

Allowing Evie to have things her way is what enabled me to finish the book, sign with an agent, and for him to sell the novel. It is what enabled me to revise it again with an editor.  And then get a book cover. Start promotion.  Schedule events.  Plan for book clubs.

So, What Would Evie Do now?

I think she’d tell me to leave her alone, and finish writing my next book.

AmyNathanMediumFileAmy Sue Nathan’s debut novel, The Glass Wives, is forthcoming from St. Martin’s Griffin, May 14, 2013. She hosts the popular blog, Women’s Fiction Writers, and has been published in many newspapers and journals.  Amy is the mom of a son in college, a daughter in high school, and two rambunctious rescued dogs.  You can visit her website AmySueNathan.com and follow her on Twittter @AmySueNathan, where she tweets about writing, par

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43 Responses to How To Get Out of Your Character’s Way

  1. Great advice, Amy! After posting this, I’m going to prepare my WWSD post it notes for my heroine, Sophie.

  2. Laura Drake says:

    Amy, In my first book, I had the same problem. In fact, I got feedback that a real person wouldn’t do some of the things I had Sam, the protag, doing. What the heck did they know — I’D done those things!

    But you’re right – Sam wouldn’t have, and it took me a LOT of growing, and a lot of craft work before I was able to get on the page what Sam would have done.

    Funny thing, though, along the way, I wrote 3 other books, and grew as a writer. Thank God, Evie and Sam didn’t give up on us!

  3. Love this, Amy. It’s so true that if we step aside, our characters can really come to life. Nicely done.

  4. Amy, there are many of us out here who have had this sort of thing happen. My problem was doubled by the fact that my first character in a novel has my actual middle name. I kept thinking, what would my kids think of this? How can I say that?

    Many revisions later I let her find her own voice … a voice different from mine. Now I can only wait and see if someone will “pick” her up and we can go on to the final stage … the agent/publisher stage :)

    Thanks and the best success with Glass Wives and good writing on that second book !!

    • Thank you, Florence! It’s like we’re co-dependent with our characters, forgetting that we get to really make the decision not to be. Fingers crossed as you take the next steps!

  5. Amy, this is a great post. I appreciate your honesty about this challenge. Funny and well said. And, its so much more fun when our characters surpass our expectations and surprise us. They become the friends we need, since we are likely neglecting our other friends to write!

  6. Kerry Ann says:

    Taking to heart. When I allowed my husband to read some chapters of my WIP, he said there was a lot of me in my main character. I think that happens with all first manuscripts, but yes, as you wrote, we must force our characters to live on their own. Great post!

    • Hi Kerry Ann! Maybe ask your husband (or someone else, frankly) point out where the similarities lie. And if you don’t like them, flip them! Go to the extreme, and then pare it back if need be. I did have a friend say that with some of my main character she could hear me saying some of the lines of dialogue, that they sounded “like me.” I have learned that I can’t control what people think when they read the book. That was kind of liberating.

  7. Very timely advice. Thanks. I just finished a memoir and am starting on a novel, so I suspect my propensity will be to have my characters resemble me and my motivations. Your words will remind me to let my characters have a life of their own. They deserve that, don’t they?

  8. Wonderful post. I learned the hard way that when I try to control my characters they fight back. I’ve learned to just go with the flow.

  9. dkent says:

    Some famous writer said that the first novel is ALWAYS autobiographical. I see this is true over and over again even if the novel is about aliens landing on Earth.

    When I tell my writing students a scene doesn’t work, some will say, “But that really happened that way.”

    My comment is that the difference between real life and fiction is that fiction has to make sense.

  10. Great advice. Best of luck with Glass Wives … and beyond!

  11. To “me” or not to “me” — that’s quite a question.

    I’m challenging myself to write characters capable of doing things I don’t approve of, saying things I’d never say. And yet, reading Stephen King’s “On Writing,” he makes the point that his characters are the folks he grew up around; he knows them. They’re not him, necessarily, but he sure understands them.

    There’s the crossover point: our characters can’t all be us, but they’d better be people we know well.

    Huh. Thanks for helping me think this through, Amy.

    • You’re welcome, Joel. I have pieces of people I know (or am glad I don’t know) in all of my characters. For me the key was sprinkling it in, not dumping it, no matter how tempting! Good luck with your writing!

  12. Great post, Amy!
    It’s hard sometimes to just let our “babies” think for themselves. We want to help them every step of the way. Yet the best writing – for me at least – comes when I let myself think like my character rather than me as my character.
    Next up, The Glass Wives. Can’t wait!!!

  13. C. K. Crouch says:

    What a great post, chiming in a little late here, but soemthing we should all be wary of is not letting our characters voices out and trying to make them like us. Hope you sell millions and that the rest of the books flow like wine. Here’s to all the WITS author’s being on the nYT best seller list a dozen times at least. :-)

    • Thanks, CK! I think it’s a conscious effort to keep ourselves out of our characters—and it also has to be a conscious effort when we need a little bit in!! :)

  14. Susan Faith Corl says:

    Thanks for the post, Amy! It was just what I needed to get my main character out of her catatonic state : )

  15. Yvette Carol says:

    Brilliant advice, and yeah, I can see myself using the WW_D? as well. I think a way of recognizing when our characters are not sufficiently their own persons comes when we find ourselves nodding at their actions, as if it’s something we would do or an extension of ourselves…

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  17. Thanks for the post, Amy. I, too, write women’s fiction and had to rewrite the same scenes over and over because my freelance editor said my protagonist wasn’t suffering enough. It’s hard to inflict suffering on someone you’ve grown to care about! I look forward to reading The Glass Wives.

    • Thanks, Suzanne. I hope you’ll let me know what you think when you do! And I agree, it’s hard to really come down on some characters. It’s great that you trust your editor enough to listen. I always tell writers to TRY things. If you don’t like the way it works, do something else or go back to the original version. That’s why I save all my documents and edit in Word’s Track Changes!

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