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Losing belief in my story / characters

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Hawthorn, Mar 12, 2020.

  1. Hawthorn

    Hawthorn Dreamer

    Hello :) First post here. I'm currently on my first proper attempt at writing a novel, and am about 20,000 words in. However I have had a bit of a crisis of faith in my story and protagonist. Whereas before they seemed real and interesting, now my character feels a bit flat and I can't seem to drive the story forward. It's like I've realised I don't know as much as I thought I did about my character, but I don't really know how to move forward without knowing her much better. And I keep wanting to go back and change a lot of what I've written, to make her into something different, because I've lost faith in what I've written her to be so far. Anyone have any suggestions for how to move forward from here? I really don't want to abandon the book at this point. I've been trying to fill in character exploration worksheets and things I've found online, but am struggling because I look at the questions and don't know the answers...
  2. Two things off the top of my head that I hope may help.

    One: Do you know where your story ends? IF so, try writing back from that ending for a few scenes. IF you know how your protagonist will handle/respond/ arrive at the end, it may help guide you through the places you are stuck. She must get to this point B and be _____. Your job is to guide her there. Our characters go though arcs of either small or great change. Sometimes that is where we get stuck. HOW do they change. Or, more likely as our role as writers, how do I execute and SHOW the change they go through.

    Otherwise it can seem like starting a road trip with no destination. Wandering is fine in life but not so much in a novel. That's up to us to steer the characters there.

    Two: I know not all writers agree with this sentiment but your characters, from your walk-ons up through your main protagonist are really just plot devices to drive the story. Now, don't get me wrong, many of my characters become like true friends to me as I get to know them but I have to accept that they are there solely to tell that story that I want to tell. It's my story, which is then, in effect, their story.

    In the main work I'm writing now, I would say my main characters have changed greatly since I began the book and I believed that I had really explored who they were pretty well up front! I knew them. . . or did I? They changed, in part because of the writing as the story progressed but more so because I needed them to be something for the story's twists and swerves that they had not been prior to those points. So characters and their complexities can be/become contradictory and that's fine as long as somewhere along the way, we go back and show a tendency for, and towards, that behavior. This can be done in later edits, adding subtle hints about the "hidden side" or the indecisiveness or whatever it is that pops up with your character in the story. Often, when I go back and edit those small contradictions in, I find readers are far more intrigued by the contrasts I've added (Oh, I thought she was ___ but what's up with ___? ) rather than the simpler, less dimensional character I may have had at the start. So my advice there is don't worry about rewriting her completely just yet, It might not be necessary!

    And a last little tip that worked wonders for me. Give yourself the freedom to step away and write scenes that have nothing to do with the actual book. Take the pressure off of your character AND yourself and just write your way through a scene that might show you how or why she acts a certain way in your story. Think of it as a friend who you've known for years and who you hold up in high esteem for her honesty and strength, who may one day say to you, offhand, "I once was arrested for stealing." That's a character sheet type reveal. One line. Nothing more. And it seems so out of character. But if the friend tells you the whole story, and it involves a misconception, betrayal or outright untruth that led to the arrest, or she DID steal but had a motive that, while not justifying theft itself, makes you empathize with her situation at the time. Now you've got depth and character and an interesting twist. To me, that person is now far more intriguing. She's been a thief. Had to steal to survive or to help her mother or pay a debt etc.

    I think when we find our characters stepping onto uncharted actions/territory, it can throw us because we have yet to really understand or think through the motivations ahead of time but, like real people, we cannot see it all up front. So take the time to explore those while remembering it doesn't main you have to completely rewrite a character.

    Anyway, that's been my experience and I hope my sharing some of it helps. :) DON'T LOSE FAITH!
    Vicki27 and Taniwha like this.
  3. Orc Knight

    Orc Knight Auror

    With Maker here on stepping away with the character. Give her little shorts and clips in her life. Or going completely off the rails just for the fun of it. How does she react to aliens? It's better then filling out a character sheet as you can explore better. Find motives you might not have known about. Let her enjoy a nice grill night at the local tiki bar or something. Or just going through the daily motions, which, while possibly boring, can clue you in too. And yeah, you can get over this hump.
  4. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    For me, when I find myself struggling with a character, I focus on their wants/desires/goals. All characters need two desires, an emotional desire and an external desire. The external goal puts the POV character in a position to achieve the emotional goal.

    An emotional desire maybe something like a longing for a connection to a lost family member. An external desire maybe a desire to leave a place in search of adventure.

    Knowing these things, really knowing them, as well as finding the right ones, is key to knowing what drives your character. They're the engine that makes your character run. So when your character is presented with obstacles in their way of achieving those goals, they will react a certain way based on those goals and their desire to achieve them.These desires need to be focused and precise. If they're not, or if the author doesn't keep these things present in the thought process, the character will wander and will run out of things to do.

    So when a mysterious droid reveals a secret message pointing towards an old hermit living out in the desert, the character's desire for adventure pushes them to search out the truth. When that hermit happens to know that character's father, and tells them that he was a Jedi Knight, it offers up an opportunity to know more about their lost parent.
  5. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    @Maker has good advice.

    This happens to me too. I don't know if this will feel relevant, but when it happens it's nearly always the same thing. Bear with me as I explain.

    It's in the first draft. It rarely happens in later drafts, but if it does it's no later than the second. IOW, I'm still fairly early in the process of composing the story itself--working through plot points, fleshing out characters, etc. And yes, I do outline. But that work still needs to be done. Outlining is like making architectural designs. You still gotta hammer in the nails.

    Anyway, in that first draft (let's just pretend it always happens there), I find that I hit stretches where I'm just sort of narrating. There's dialogue, sure. There are dramatic moments. But mostly, I'm telling myself the story. That's how I put it: telling the story to myself. In lots of scenes, I'm seeing the place for the first time. It may be a familiar character, but it's the first time Character A and Character B have spoken, or fought, or whatever.

    If I can switch metaphors, at this point I'm blocking scenes and rehearsing lines. We're not even to the point of dress rehearsal. The sets aren't complete. There's no orchestra. We're just working through the bones of it.

    In here, my characters not infrequently feel shallow to me. Wooden. Going through the motions. I have learned that, for me at least, this is ok.

    Because in later drafts, I start to add in color where I've been working in black and white (yes, today is Metaphor Day). So that scene between A and B? Now that I know how the scene is going to play out, I can come back and work on nuance. I can tweak the dialog because by this point I have a completed draft (or what will pass for one) and I've written A and B a number of times. I know them better than I did here in their first scene. I know their voices and mannerisms better, which are now more than checkboxes on a list, they are actual behaviors.

    It's here, in Draft 3 (or 12! ... and yes that's twelve factorial <g>) that I start to like my characters. Earlier, they were good ideas, good sketches, but now they're people I know. In an odd way, it's harder in these later drafts precisely because I know the characters better, because now I care about them. I want to do right by them, be they good guy or bad guy. They deserve their moment and I need to do the best I can. I feel obligated.

    Anyway, a shorter way to say all the above is, it takes time to get to know your characters. They're more than a Tinder profile. You gotta go on a few dates, go steady for a while, before you can even begin to say you know them. So, if it's early days, do pay attention ... but don't be worried.
  6. The Dark One

    The Dark One Auror

    I tend to work on several projects at once as I always have a million ideas rattling around in my head. This means I'm always working on building up ideas until enough of them stick together to make a plot and a story.

    The things that make the characters interesting are always linked to the plot...somehow.
  7. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Myth Weaver

    I have written nine novel length works, six or eight novellas, and a pile of shorter tales. Currently, between other 'life issues,' I'm engaged in the rewrite of the last of the novels.

    Welcome to the 'muddy middle' - that point in the tale where all you see around you is a giant swamp. The once interesting world seems flat and lifeless - as do the characters. Usually hits about 25-35,000 words in, usually in the first draft. Best advice - butt in chair, and push forward, ignoring all that. In the past, I'd set a timer for thirty minutes, once it started, I began typing. Get through this..well, there's usually another ugly stretch at about the 90% mark - if anything, it's worse than what you're going through now. Same advice, push ahead until done. Then set the manuscript aside for a few weeks - maybe even a couple months before coming back and making changes.
  8. Night Gardener

    Night Gardener Inkling

    HawthornHawthorn I have a writing exercise / strategy that might benefit you.

    1. Read what you have written so far.

    2. Sleep on it.

    3. Try writing your story out, beginning to end, as a long bullet note or very simple outline (think screenplay). One main idea/event per half-page. Leave lots of room. Ask yourself questions to come back to and answer, like:
    A. What is motivating the character?
    B. Why is this scene/ event important?
    C. What do you want your readers to feel or. understand during this scene/event?
    Get as far as you can, and if you're not sure, write an idea as OPTION 1, 2, etc and group those drafts together. For example, if your MC decides to go into a cave alone, that's Option 1: she goes in, and what happens? Or, Option 2: she gets a friend, and they go into the cave together. That event probably won't change the beginning of the outline, but may influence a few chapters of the book. Will it change the ending? Maybe. Just designate different idea-paths as you wander so you can find your way back.

    4. Read the outline, start to finish. No re-writes until you have your beginning and your ending. After this lengthy task is finished...

    5. Sleep on it. And celebrate!

    6. Read the outline, start to finish. This time, make notes, add new ideas, change the order of events, edit details, etc.

    7. From this outline, begin a brand new draft. Add details, descriptions, etc.

    8. Revise this draft as necessary.

    If you don't know where your story is going or how it's going to end, outline as far as you can go each session, advancing the narrative and developing the plot, characters, etc.

    If you think you're losing faith in your story, don't panic! There is a more likely an intuitive or subconscious understanding that something is just "off". Give your doubts some space to work themselves out on paper. Literally write yourself questions, acknowledge your doubt AS YOU WRITE. Use a different colored pen if that's easier. Then, when you can answer that question, you'll feel more confident as your story progresses.
  9. Hawthorn

    Hawthorn Dreamer

    Thank you so much everyone! Your replies are all so helpful! I definitely feel in the 'muddy middle'... (about 25-30,000 words in). But I have renewed faith that I can get through it :)
  10. d20kaiju

    d20kaiju Acolyte

    Hi Hawthorn,

    I may be a little late to this discussion. I’m glad you’ve renewed your faith in your project. I just wanted to take a moment to reassure you that fatigue at the point you’ve reached in the writing process is totally normal. In fact, it’s where so many aspiring novelists give up. Please don’t! Hang in there and keep at your novel.

    Forgive me if some variation of this has already been said, but if you’re struggling with where to take your character, examine her motivations. What is driving her? On every single page she should be moving or acting toward something. Maker is right that our characters are literary devices, but a big part of what makes them function is their motivation. Whenever you’re in a scene, ask yourself what the characters in that scene all want.

    And lastly, give yourself permission to write poorly. Just write. It is okay if it feels like it sucks while you’re writing it. Chances are good it’s not half as bad as you think and that’s what editing and revising is for. Get your manuscript finished. Worry about the rest later because then you’ll have the freedom to do so. Better to have a complete and imperfect manuscript than no manuscript at all.

    Best of luck!
    Vicki27 and Firefly like this.
  11. Darkfantasy

    Darkfantasy Inkling

    Sometimes I find taking a step back helps because, even when I'm not at my PC I'm thinking about my current story until I drive myself mad with it. So normally I'll give myself a 24 hour break and do other things and not allow myself to even think about it.
    Then I return and read what I've written as a reader. Not as if I've written it.
    I try to detect the problem, if there is one. Is there are real problem with the story/character and my instincts are picking up on it I just don't know what it is? Or am I seeing a problem that isn't there because I'm being a perfectionist?

    Try thinking outside the book and looking at that possibilities are own for the character's journey. What is their goal, motivation and conflict and what is their want?
  12. Miles Lacey

    Miles Lacey Inkling


    Every writer will go through stages where it seems as if their story has run out of steam, the main characters seem flat and the writing is as dry as a BBC news interview.

    I read a book by James Frey many years ago called How To Write the Dramatic Novel and one piece of advice he came up with was that if you get stuck you should interview one or more of your main characters. This might give you a break-through or an idea or two that could break the dreaded brick wall in the middle of the story.
  13. oenanthe

    oenanthe Minstrel

    losing it at 20k is perfectly normal, and I'm glad you've pushed on. you have at least two more rough patches ahead of you as you continue to draft. When they hit you, I hope you come back to talk about it.
  14. S J Lee

    S J Lee Sage

    Congrats, keep it up! Having a goal / twist / conclusion you want to arrive at, and a few "landmarks on the way" helps...

    Tolkien got Frodo as far as Bree in TLofTR and had no idea who the hobbit "Trotter" was when the 4 met Trotter.... THEN he stepped back and let the ideas recharge...THEN he changed Trotter to Aragorn/Strider, and gave Aragorn a goal! Then changed a mere magic ring to THE ring, and away the story went! You are probably one or two tweaks away from something really good!

    You need to give your heroine some goal... and it can be given to her fifty pages in, like Gandalf gave to Frodo... AS LONG as the intro catches the interest of the reader!
    Vicki27 and Ruru like this.
  15. Vicki27

    Vicki27 Minstrel

    OMG I just love this site! Everyone comes up with such good advice and ideas. Everything written above is helpful and people are so generous with their knowledge and experiences.:)
    Nighty_Knight likes this.

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