What to do when your characters are stuck in a rut

While trucking about from one place to another, it is inevitable that your characters will find themselves “stuck” in some place or another. You, as the active observer (i.e. the author) are charged with helping them escape their bonds and return to the journey. Of course, it isn’t as easy as it sounds and there are more ways to get it wrong than right.

Writing about journeys is tough work. Somewhere in The Art of Fiction (unless my memory has failed me) John Gardner writes that all great literature is either about a journey or a war. The position is general enough that one could make just about anything fit the frame. For example, one might slot detective fiction into the war category if one was so inclined to stretch the metaphor to the thinest of veneers.

Unlike war, where there is a well-defined conflict around your story, journeys are usually about personal development that occurs as a character moves through the landscape. There are struggles to overcome, and those struggles often (and should) take the form of antagonists, but the trip itself is as much the story as the main character’s transformation.

This makes solving the problem of “stuck” characters even more complicated.

The Road Not Travelled… Ever

A good writing teacher will tell you that you should have planned a little better before you got yourself stuck. An outline does wonders. Of course, many writers – myself included – abhor the idea of an outline. This is of course until you learn that the outline for a novel is more like a sketch and not the empirical indented theorem that made you cringe in English Comp 101.

But for the sake of argument, let’s say that you’ve actually chucked your outline or perhaps never put one down to begin with. Let’s assume that you and your main character are adrift some place in the void of your story. The action that got you to this place has moved on and you main character opted not to follow. You may be tempted to introduce a new character, someone for the main character to follow.

If you are constantly introducing new characters, chances are that your main character is not strong enough to carry the story. They don’t have enough going on. They don’t have a purpose that is driving them forward.

Even in a journey, the main character needs to have some driving force that keeps them on the road to wherever it is they are going. If not, they are wandering and what you are writing ceases to be fiction.

How do I know?

Heaps of discarded manuscript fragments litter my studio and consume magnetic tracks on my hard drive. Such are the testaments to my failure to help my characters escape the forces that hold them fast to the deadest parts of their stories.

No doubt you are sitting in the midst of your own boneyard. Don’t worry. This is all part of the learning process.

Back on the Road

Getting your story back on track often involves some serious retracing of steps. Maybe you fell off the path ten pages ago, or perhaps it was more like fifty. You’ve got to go back through your story and find out where your main character lost their purpose and then viscously attack whatever it was that led you astray.

Here are some likely culprits:

  • You introduced a new character, especially a cool one.
  • Your main character entered a new world (venue, city, dimension, whatever).
  • The main character stopped thinking about their objective.

New Characters

On a journey, we are bound to meet new and exciting people. That’s part of the fun.

These characters are usually there to help or hurt us, to be simplistic. And yet, there is a third type too, the character who is there to steal the story.

At some point, way back in mists of time, you had an idea about a character.

“There’s this guy, see. And he…” bla bla bla

Truly, we all think about our characters as exciting and purpose driven right from the start. Otherwise, why write about them at all. But odd things happen on the road to Ithaca… you get ideas.

What you need to learn is that some ideas will lead you to new characters who are too strong to appear in your story. They need stories of their own, and if you do not remove them they will take over the story you are writing and run away with it.

This usually manifests itself with the action of the story moving on with the new character while your old character (the one you are writing about) stays put.

If you think you can’t live without this new character, perhaps you should ask yourself if this character could be the antagonist in your story. Set the two against each other and see what happens.

New Worlds

I love writing about new places, especially places I’ve made up from scratch. I’ve long since given up trying to figure out where all of these places come from. They just come to mind, blossoming like so many dandelions in my unkempt front yard.

The problem with new worlds is that they can be very distracting to you and thus to your main character by proxy. Yet, in a journey, they are unavoidable. In fact, they are the key feature of your storytelling mode.

When entering a new venue in your story, you should ask yourself, “Is this trip really necessary?”

If your character has wandered off away from the action, it may be that they really didn’t need to go questing into that new world.

This one is pretty easy to spot. It generally takes the form of prose like this:

John looked at the chair in the room. The chair was carved with all sorts of ornate designs that reminded him of a church altar. He thought about that chair and everything it must have meant to the owner.

And so the chair story goes on and on… Basically, there is a lot of looking and introspection about objects. Immense amounts of supposition.

I have reams of this stuff.

Character Boredom

I once wrote a story about a very reluctant hero. There was a dangerous battle going on and everything told him to just run away. But he didn’t.

I’m not sure why I thought about saving Lenny, but I did. Lenny had double-crossed me, tried to feed me to monster, let me hang myself out to dry with a serious thug, hit me on the head with a mallet, and tried to convince Sharon to kill me. Yet, something in me wanted to save someone. Why I didn’t think about saving myself I can’t say.

Not the most inspired prose, but the point is that the main character (his name is Anders) jumped into the fray instead of running away. The fight at hand was core to who he was (actually, in this case it was core to who he was becoming but that is a different story).

If your character is not fully engaged, to the core, in the journey ahead they will get bored. When they do, they will wander off the stage and out into the audience. They’ll go out for coffee and never come back.

You need to make sure that whatever journey you’ve set out for your main character is absolutely essential to their person. There can be no way that they will back out from moving forward. It simply must be done.

Even now, I’m wishing I could get back to the story of Lenny and Anders. That little snippet above isn’t enough to whet your appetite, but I know the rest and I know how critical it is for Anders. I want to see Anders succeed and perhaps that is one of the most important things to take away from this: be your main character, make their goal your goal too.

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