When the protagonist won’t let you inside their head

Scene-by-scene we record the comings and goings of the imaginary friends stomping, scuttling and tip-toeing around inside our head. Whether you be a plotter and zeroing in on the scene for today’s attention, or Pantser and letting the mind wander and lead – we all take that journey inside our imagination and allow our fingers to tap away at the keyboard to paint the vivid adventures that we have conjured.

In most cases, this journey involves a clearly defined cast of antagonists, protagonists and a slew of supporting cast members. The lead role, of course, is the protagonist with whom the reader should identify. When we have a firm grasp of who that protagonist is, what their motives are and how they interact with others and to circumstances – the words can flow smoothly. Your muse will lead you to where the story should go. Sometimes, that is not the case.

Of course, we can go through the typical character profile exercise: describing their appearances, giving them a background, identifying their wants and needs, listing their obstacles both internal and external. This should be a sound basis for the most part, but occasionally you may come across a character that will not let you (the author) inside their head. You are left writing unconvincing dialogue and inconsistent variations in the plot.

This usually occurs when the protagonist is several steps removed from the author’s perspective. Whether it be a historical, cultural, gendered or age separation – such gaps can lead to chasms opening between you and your lead character and leaves you sitting at the keyboard not knowing what to write or writing drivel that will need to be binned.

Here are five things that can be done to help bridge that gap.

  1. Stop writing and start reading

    Pick up a memoir of someone that would be similar to your character – set in the same era, location and class. A first-hand account of what that person went through is invaluable input into guiding your character through your plot points.

  2. Research

    Determining the zeitgeist of the demographic and the era is another good way of providing a framework for your characters thoughts and dialogue. Due to historical or political events, what was the general mood of the populace? Optimistic or pessimistic? Were certain prejudices or predilections commonly expressed? Let your character also assume those characteristics (if appropriate).

  3. Meditate

    Before sitting down to write, take the time to close your eyes in a quiet space, let go of your own thoughts and worries and step into your character. Put them on like a jacket and feel what it is like to be them. Place your character in the scene you plan to write and ask questions, about their mood, their surroundings, their fears and their desires. Ask the character what they have just done before the scene you are about to write. What do they have to do immediately after this scene (that is not accounted for in the text.) Flesh out the scene in your mind beyond the start and finish of the words on the page.

  4. Write extraneous scenes

    Give the character a task such as writing a letter to another character, a phone call conversation, a duty they would typically perform in their day. You may have no intention of putting the words in the finished book, but the process will give you a deeper connection to the way they behave.

  5. Rest or Exercise

    Sometimes, no matter what you do, the creative juices are not flowing favourably. A forty-five-minute brisk walk, a nanna-nap if you are tired, or a meal, if you are hungry, will do wonders to get the brain firing on all synapses once again.

Have you had a problem writing about a certain character? What did you do to fix the issue? As a reader, have you read a book and thought – nope – the author doesn’t seem to know their lead? What gave it away?