Writing Tips: Getting a Character Unstuck

I am busy getting my Elizabeth Hawksley back list of ten historical novels into e-books The first e-book will be Highland Summer and I’ve been remembering the struggle to introduce my heroine, Robina (an intelligent but naive seventeen-year-old girl) in such a way as to make her interesting. The novel was in the third person and I was getting desperate. And then I had an idea: I would write Robina’s diary and see what happened. Perhaps a (temporary) first person viewpoint would help to free the block.

I’m stuck, dammit! What am I to do?

And this is what appeared:

Robina’s Diary: Tuesday, 2nd April, 1850

Grandfather has died and things are going to change. I knew it was going to be different the day after he died when, for the first time ever! Grandmama and I had a bowl of soup and a bannock for luncheon. Normally, we don’t eat from breakfast at nine o’clock sharp, until dinner at five o’clock, because Grandfather despises, despised people who couldn’t last out. ‘Old women and invalids,’ he would snort. Poor Grandmama keeps oatcakes hidden away in a tin. And, in defiance of Grandfather’s wishes, she always makes tea at three o’clock.  

I’ve always thought Grandfather’s rule was stupid. But then, I’m usually hungry. 

At first a stream of waffle poured out. Doggedly, I went on writing. Then, suddenly, an unexpected nugget popped up. Robina and her grandmother have been living under the autocratic rule of a not very pleasant man. She’s a hungry teenager, and, possibly, ripe for rebellion.

I continued writing.

After about forty minutes of continuous writing I realized, to my surprise, that I now knew several important things about Robina which I hadn’t known before. (She’s in love with a wimp, and she speaks Gaelic) I’d no idea where they’d come from but, once they appeared, not only did they make sense; new possibilities for the book also emerged. The block was unravelling.

Canonbury Square, Islington: a good space for writers to think in. Photo by Elizabeth Hawksley 

But was it all right to intersperse a third person novel with chunks from the heroine’s diary? Shouldn’t I now try and put what I’d learnt from Robina’s stream of consciousness diary into the third person? I sent the first chapter to my agent to see what his reaction was, and waited anxiously.

He loved it. He thought it worked, and pointed out that if Charles Dickens could intersperse Bleak House with chunks from his heroine Esther’s diary, why shouldn’t I?

I agreed. I would decide for each Robina scene whether it would be best done from Robina’s journal point of view, i.e. in the first person, or in the third person. There were pluses and minuses for both. Eventually, I had 29 extracts from Robina’s journal, the rest was in the third person which allowed me to explore Robina’s life from different viewpoints – which might differ, of course, and that would help to keep the reader’s interest.

The most important thing I learnt from this exercise was a) to write in stream of consciousness mode without trying to shape it, and b) that, eventually, the character whose diary you are writing will herself, or himself, will give you the answers you need. Of course, they may not be what you thought was going to happen but if what comes up surprises you, the author, then they’ll surprise the reader, too, which is what you want.

Elizabeth Hawksley

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16 thoughts on “Writing Tips: Getting a Character Unstuck”

  1. What an ingenious solution, Elizabeth! I’ve never tried that one. I may take a leaf out of your book. The closest I came was writing a blog for someone when I was promoting Lady Fan years ago and she wanted the heroine to write it direct to the reader. It was an interesting exercise. As you say, characters do surprise you. Ottilia was supposed to be a shy, retiring sort of person and her husband was going to be the “face” of the investigations. She wasn’t having any of it. The moment she stepped onto my metaphorical stage, she took command and that was that.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Elizabeth, which made me laugh. It’s strange how characters sometimes just won’t do what you want them to do!

  2. So interesting.
    Really enjoyed this but as I’ve said before, I love hearing about the process of creativity.

    1. Thank you, Jess. The process of creating believable characters is a strange one It’s akin to walking a tightrope in some respects. The writer needs to be simultaneously both objective and subjective. Every character is a product of the author’s imagination (or, possibly, taken from someone one knows – which has its dangers) but, at some point, the author has to cut the umbilical cord and set the character free. The results can be unexpected!

  3. Oh that’s a good idea!
    It must be quite challenging to go back and make changes to these characters that you wrote so long ago. On the other hand, I suppose it must also be quite fun to get to know them again, like catching up with an old friend.

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Huon. It wasn’t so much changing a character’s personality as fine tuning the language she spoke. I realized that I’d given my heroine (Decima) a more sophisticated way of talking than she would have used – and it wasn’t ringing true. She was interested in metaphysics – though she wouldn’t have known that word – so I needed her to use everyday language to explain some quite complicated concepts!

      Once I’d done that, she came to life!

  4. That is so interesting, Elizabeth. I have used diary snippets as chapter headings, and once used blog extracts from the heroine to compress backstory and, in the second instance, reveal a slightly less forgiving side of her nature, which was fun. Writing an actual diary for a character does give me little tingles of excitment, though. Thankyou.

    1. Interesting, Liz! Perhaps you should consider giving it a whirl – it might work for you. And if it doesn’t, you can always remove the diary entries – which is what I’d originally meant to do. I can’t help thinking that, even if one removed the diary entries later, traces of what they said would somehow remain.

  5. Wonderful inspiration, Elizabeth! I have used stream of consciousness writing in the past but never in the context of the character. I’m involved in another project at present but once I take up writing fiction again, I shall use this for a character I have but for which I have only a slight backstory in mind.

    1. Great! I’m quite sure that your character’s as yet unknown backstory will swim into view and shoot off in a surprising direction. Do let me know what happens! I’d love to know!

  6. Really interesting. Like Liz Bailey, I’ve written apiece “from” my main protagonist for a blogger, but never a diary. Something I now want to try!

    1. Fantastic, Lesley.I write Historicals, so, of course, my characters don’t blog! I think part of the reason writing a character’s diary works is that it has a readership of one. Blogs, by definition, are for public consumption. A diary can spill secrets!

  7. A very interesting post, Rachel.
    I have a stuck character, and recently ‘gave’ her an interview with an online chat person. I learned all sorts of things about her that I didn’t know! It’s good to approach from a different angle at times.
    In real life, I have the most interesting and inconsequential chit chats with those little online boxes that pop up to offer help, when you change your insurance or phone deal, for example.

    I imagine them sitting, bored to death at their desks, telling people about tariffs etc, and I always try to insert something like ‘how’s the weather there?’ etc.

    My fictitious online chat box turned up some interesting and entertaining facts and gave me the direction that my WiP is currently taking.

    Who knows where it will end?

    1. That’s brilliant, Sue! It’s amazing how much people will let their guard down to total strangers and I suppose it’s the same with the author’s unconscious mind! If you give it the opportunity it will usually come up with the unexpected! Good luck with the rest of the book.

        1. If you want to leave a comment you will be asked several questions – like your email address, and whether you’d like to get my new posts dropping into your inbox every Sunday, to which you say ‘Yes’ I hope! I don’t think it’s too complicated but, on the other hand, my computer seems to be in a phase of changing things for no good reason which I always find confusing.

          I’ll check this with my computer guru.

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