Battling Writer’s Block: Letting Characters Drive the Story

It’s safe to say that almost every writer out there has suffered from writer’s block in some way, whether it’s a question of what to do with a character, where the plot should go next, how the story should end, or even how it should begin. There are a number of ways to try getting through that brick wall, but I want to focus on one that I have found to be quite helpful in my own writing:

Ask your character.

Say what? How does a fictional character that you gave life to, that you decided on their appearance, their personality, their every personal detail, have the ability to drive a story? If you’ve developed your character effectively, asking them should be like asking your friend, or at least an acquaintance.

Let’s say you’ve made it part way through your novel and you’re stuck. Maybe you have some ideas of different paths to take and can’t decide which way to go. Ask your character which way they would naturally follow. Perhaps you’re partial to Path B but your character is telling you that Path A makes more sense, that they are more inclined to drive things in that direction. Listen to them and do it.

Now let’s say you’re close to the end of the novel and get stuck there. You have no idea at all what to do, not even a single thought of where the story should go next. Ask your character. I know you’re saying it’s not that easy, a character cannot possibly pull an idea out of the sky, but if you’ve developed your character deeply enough, they will answer you. Close your eyes and imagine yourself standing next to your character, looking them in the eye and saying, “Where should we go from here?” Walk beside them as they lead you where they are naturally inclined to go.

So, you’ve got a character that has answered your questions and they have told you clearly what they want to do, but you hate their answer. You think it’s a terrible idea and your story will be a train wreck if you follow their lead. Listen to them and do it anyway. Often times when you let the character lead you, they only lead one step at a time rather than telling you the full narrative of what they want. If you take each step walking beside them as you write, you just might be surprised with where you end up.

If you’ve followed your character’s suggestion and you’re not happy with where you ended up, try writing the story going in another direction. Perhaps take that other path you were considering or go in the complete opposite direction of what your character said and compare. You might even take it a step further by telling your character, “Go down this path, then tell me what you would do from here.” Walk beside them again, and once you’ve reached your destination, decide which way worked best.

Stepping aside from the topic of writer’s block for a moment, using this character-driving technique can improve your story in other ways, particularly in dialogue exchanges. Rather than putting words in your character’s mouth, let them speak on their own. Watch their physical actions as they talk and describe this in your writing. Letting a main character shine on their own creates a deeper connection with readers, making them feel more immersed in the story.

So go ahead. Ask your character. If they don’t answer you, revisit your character development. If they have ideas, let them take the wheel and enjoy the ride.