Characters: When Do You Listen & When Do You Give a Little Push?

I’ve got this protagonist.

Well, actually, I don’t yet. She’s a good kid, she’s trying to be active, and, overall, I think she’s a likeable hero. The thing is, she isn’t coming onto the page–YET!–as I want her to.

She’s a little young. And a little naive. Which might be okay, if I were writing a middle-grade novel. Okay, the naive still wouldn’t be okay, not for me, but she could be a little less aware at the start of the story, a little less–yes, I’ll say the word: edgy. But I’m writing YA: She’s sixteen years old, and she’s not feeling like the sixteen-year-old I want to see on the page.

The key words in that last sentence are, I think, “I want.”

I have a vision for this story. It’s changed since I started the book. In my first first draft (yes, I consider that I’m on my second first draft, and you don’t want to argue with me), I pictured my hero, at the end of the book, really coming into her own–eyes being forced open and taking a huge step into growth and commitment. Then, when I realized I was working on two books, and that I had to pick the one I wanted to tell now, that hero changed for me. At least in my head. She became someone who was already more used to living a certain way, in a world that had constraints for her–constraints she’d learned to work around, constraints she’d developed a pattern to deal with. She became someone for whom–because of a big event at the start of those books–the constraints tightened, to the degree that she couldn’t work around them anymore, to the point where she and the constraints are headed for a big confrontation.

I think this hero is who my character, not just me, wants to be. But she hasn’t yet come through and told me that, or talked to me about how that makes her act, what choices it makes her face and take, what voice (and that’s the biggie) she should be telling her story in.

And, frankly, I’ve gotten a bit tired of waiting for her to do that. I think it’s time for me to do a little bit of forcing my vision onto the character.

This goes against a lot of what we hear writers talking about–those exploratory drafts in which the characters (hopefully, ideally) talk themselves onto the page in fits and spurts, those brainstorming sessions where we sit with a clean sheet of paper and listen to our characters, to what they have to say about themselves. It goes against that really hard thing to be: patient.

And yet. Maybe we have to give our characters some help. I swear, every now & then, I do hear the voice of this older, more aware hero in my head. I see her in glimpses–with a bit more attitude in her shoulders, a bit more tension in her face, a bit more of that here-we-go-again feeling in her heart. Maybe it’s not her. Maybe it’s that the work to bring her out, to let her out, is a new skill for me, one I haven’t yet developed as strongly as I need to. In my last book, the hero pretty much rolled onto the page–it was a lighter book, with humor, and my hero’s flip, impatient, cocky words came easily. Okay, maybe not easily, but compared to this book? Oh, yeah.

So maybe this is a craft thing for me. Maybe the hero of this WIP is in there, for real, just waiting for me to find the key and open things up. Maybe she wants me to push.

Well, I think she’s going to get it.

I’m working this week on letters to my protagonist and my antagonist, a la Susan Taylor Brown’s technique. I’m also going to just take some notes on attitude, on voice, on the “normal” world that both these characters are living in when the book opens. I don’t know how much of this will get into the draft I’m working on, but I’m hoping doing this work will at least get rid of the floundering feeling I’m having as I write –that sensation that, sure, I’m writing structured scenes with some setting and conflict, but that I have no clue what their base is, where they fit into the bigger world I’m creating.

How much do you listen and how much do you direct, or choreograph, your characters? When do they talk freely, and what do you do when they’re closed down and incommunicado? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!


  1. I usually find that leaving my character alone for awhile helps. If I go away and live my life I eventually find that my character starts talking. Often this is because I’ve done more research which informs the story. Or maybe I observe something in my life or in someone else that gives me ideas. Truthfully we just don’t have all this stored up inside of us waiting to come out on the page. We haven’t experienced everything and can’t imagine every scenario or attitude or way of speaking that is needed for the story.

    But is it possible the first book does involve a slightly younger character? And that book two is the older version of the same person? Or does that just complicate the whole question of audience?


    • beckylevine says:

      The first book might very well have been someone younger–that’s a good point, Joyce. I don’t think it’s the same person–that was one of the reasons II decided I had two books, I couldn’t see the character I was connecting to being part of the world I was trying to write her into. But maybe I was used to writing her younger-and I have to push past that. Thanks!


  2. I love the questions. And I like Joyce’s answers. I guess in case of doubt, I’m often one to put aside while working on something else. And let aha sneak up. Good luck!


    • beckylevine says:

      I think maybe that’s why I’ve been coming to this realization. I’ve had about a week forced off writing, from other commitments, and I realized I don’t really want to move forward without getting her further onto the page as I see her. So maybe that’s actually listening, not pushing?


  3. joycemoyerhostetter says:

    I don’t know Becky. You’ll find your way. There is nothing wrong with experimenting. It’s not all as mystical as we’d like it to be!


  4. Still working on this whole process. Interesting post and comments. PUsh-pull. Quite a dynamic.


  5. I’m on my second first draft, too. I know what you mean! As for characters – I’m use a little of both schools of thought. I let my character grow into who she is meant to be, but I do a lot of directed character studies, development, notes, research, interviews, etc. it takes me many drafts to really get to know my character – and I think for me that’s just part of my process. There is no one right way – and it’s often different for each story (frustrating as that may be). Just be patent – do what you can to get your character to make herself known to you. The thing is, you’ll be able to tell (when you read your drafts) what feels forced and what feels real. Good luck! Happy writing!


    • beckylevine says:

      Thanks, Debbi! This is what I’m trying to do, spend more time with my characters. It’s hard, though, cause I want to be writing! Whine, whine. πŸ™‚ I may need to go back to Maass for some exercises.


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