My Characters Won’t Behave!

I recently watched the delightful holiday movie, The Man Who Invented Christmas. Charles Dickens, played by Dan Stevens, is irked by poor sales figures on two recent books. He’s got family issues, financial stress, and this leads to writer’s block.

He needs money, so he must write another book. When his publishers pass on his idea for a Christmas novel, he vows to publish it himself. Sound familiar? Yes, it does these days.

Trouble is, Dickens doesn’t have an idea—yet. It creeps into his head, fostered by his habit of writing down interesting names and collecting words and phrases. Then he searches for an appropriate name for his main character which, as any writer knows, must have the right sound and personify the character.

Scrooge—if ever there was a perfect name for a character, that’s it. Dickens speaks the name and quicker than you can say “Bah, humbug!” Ebenezer appears, grumpily played by Christopher Plummer.

He’s not happy. He’s not cooperating either. Neither are the other characters who show up to plague Dickens. Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig, Marley’s Ghost—they’re upset that Dickens plans to kill off Tiny Tim and they won’t shut up. As for Scrooge, he’s nasty and on target when he lobs his opinions and observations at Dickens.

All the writers among you, raise your virtual hand if this has ever happened to you.

It does to me, despite the fact that I say, “Wait a minute, you’re not real. I made you up. How dare you have a mind of your own.”

In Till the Old Men Die, I was sure that one character was responsible for the deaths of two murder victims. Then another character jumped up and down, hands waving, and said, “No, I did it!”

Then there are the characters who are supposed to be walk-ons, there to further the plot of one particular book. However, not content with being one-offs, they start showing up in other plots. I have a character from an earlier Jeri Howard book, Water Signs, who appears in The Devil Close Behind and my new book, The Things We Keep. Another character who had a brief role in Jeri’s case Witness to Evil wound up as the protagonist of my suspense novel What You Wish For. And there’s Tidsy, in Death Rides the Zephyr, the first in the Jill McLeod California Zephyr series. She’s in two books out of the next three and may wind up with her own novel.

Ah, well. Follow where the characters lead. I’ve discovered that if I try to make them do things they don’t want to do, I wind up wandering through the writer’s block maze.

The character who now exhibits a mind of her own is Jeri Howard, the protagonist of my long-running private eye series. After The Devil Close Behind was published, I thought it might be time to close the book on Jeri. After all, 13 books is a good long run. At the time I didn’t have an idea for #14.

Then it began to creep into my head, shoving aside the historical novel I’d just started and elbowing its way to the front of the line. A house in Alameda that looked neglected, one I saw in the neighborhood near the Saturday farmers market. It wasn’t abandoned, though. Someone was living there.

The writer in me began asking questions. Especially, what if? What if there was an old Navy footlocker hidden in that house? What if Jeri opened it, and found human bones? Of course, Jeri is going to find out whose bones and what happened to those people.

Find out in The Things We Keep, which will be published in March 2023.

8 thoughts on “My Characters Won’t Behave!

  1. Great post, Janet! And so relatable. My characters are always telling me what they would or wouldn’t do. They love to tell me they not only wouldn’t say ‘that’, but they certainly wouldn’t say it in that particular way. I have often been told by a character they are going to a certain place that I, the writer, have never been, don’t care to go to, and had no idea that’s where we were heading. Yet off we go. On another note, I love the cover of your new book.


  2. I doubt readers really understand how some characters come to be so vivid and, well, intrusive. In A Murderous Innocence I created a “walk-on” character. He was supposed to walk on and then walk off after delivering an important line. But he kept showing up. When I gave talks about the book, the readers wanted to talk about him. He felt special to them. I’ve given up trying to explain the phenomenon. It just is.


  3. Janet, i had that happen in the WIP I’m writing. Who I had slated to be the killer is not any longer since one of the characters would the least likely but have the most to lose. I love when that happens! And the recurring characters that you don’t plan on. A drug dealer from the last Spotted Pony Casino book turned up in this one. I hadn’t planned that either. LOL Good post!


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