Why You Must Give Your Protagonist a Time-Out (or How to Treat Your Characters Like Toddlers)

You’ve all heard writers go on about listening to your characters. Let them speak to you. Guide the story. The heck with that. I’m the writer of this darned tale, and I’ll decide where this story will go. That may have come off too harsh, but I don’t want some infantile manifestation to highjack my story.

You heard me right. I said infantile. Your characters, whether they be a withered old crone or a young lad, have only a year or two under their belt by the time you finish your manuscript. That barely puts them at toddler stage.

You do need to listen to your characters. Nothing reads falser than characters pushed into situations they would never enter themselves. Or worse, when characters become marionettes, saying or doing actions against their own values.

So how do you balance character choice with the plot thoughline? After all, you can’t have a gang of toddler-minded characters derail your climax, can you? Well, if you’ve ever raised a child, you’ve walked this tenuous path before.

When my little girl wants something, like to play with her fork as if it were a toy, I consider the long term consequences. Not just what will happen today, but where it might lead (as in playing with other silverware). If it’s something simple that won’t cause problems down the line, like inviting a stuffed monkey to eat at the table, I green light it. When it leads to trouble, as in using a fork as an airplane, I nix it. Yeah she might sulk or throw a fit. But life goes on.

Now consider your manuscript. You’re happily typing, following whatever plot or scene guide you’ve laid out, when your character speaks up. Or maybe it’s just that your protagonist balks at the lines of dialogue you stuff in her mouth. That’s when you listen. You’re the parent after all. You must take the character’s viewpoints into consideration. Think, will this help the overall plot, taking it in a new and exciting direction? Or is your character merely acting on a whim, and dragging your plot down with her?

If you agree, awesome, your character took a step closer toward maturity. If you disagree, look out. Your character is likely to act out, sulking or throwing a tantrum right there on the page. Give her a time out. Work on a different scene or revise something. Let the character cool down. Then you can listen to your characters needs with cool reason. Because in reality, it’s you who’s freaked out. When something tosses a wrench into your well made plans, the typical reaction is a full on fit. Refusal to believe anything other than your original course of action.

This happens to me often. I plot out the chapter, write it, and send it off to critique only to find that my readers felt my character didn’t come through enough. Or even worse, that my character wouldn’t act the way I have her acting. And yes, I throw a good hissy. But if is step back, and give it some time, I can usually listen with a clear head. Then the alterations make the work stronger.

Now if you’re writing a series of novels with the same protagonist, then you truly will let your character be the guide. Imagine Sherlock Holmes or Sookie Stackhouse acting out of character. The readers would revolt. The characters here are much more mature, adults as opposed to toddlers.

So the next time your character wants to go one direction and you need to take the plot another direction, perhaps a time out is called for. This will give you time to listen to your character’s desires with a cool head. But be firm. After all, you’re the parent, err, writer here. It’s your books, not theirs.

Tim Kane

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About Tim Kane

Tim Kane is a young adult fiction writer.
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One Response to Why You Must Give Your Protagonist a Time-Out (or How to Treat Your Characters Like Toddlers)

  1. AG says:

    Very interesting and helpful…. Thanks.

    PS I note that Chet’s words on criticism start with characterization. This certainly fits right in.

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