The other day I reached a sticking point on my work in progress, and couldn't figure out where I'd gone wrong. I'd sketched out my scenes with end goals in mind, and had my hero navigating through the obstacles one by one. Here was my outline with the events neatly laid out. Here were the words on the page, sitting there like dead fish and boring the hell out of me.
That's when I realized I'd committed a mortal sin of writing. My character, the one who the story is supposed to be about, wasn't making the story. He was sitting lifeless in a contrived stew of events. No wonder I was bored!
Chuck Wendig has written a couple good articles about character agency. Per Wendig, agency is "a demonstration of the character's ability to make decisions and affect the story." In other words, story isn't an external factor that happens to characters. Good characters make the story, through their actions, reactions, strengths, and weaknesses.
The most frustrating part of my block was that I had created a rich character with lots of struggles, both internal and external, and tons of investment in the central conflict. And nothing of that was coming out on the page. He was sitting inside this cardboard structure of events, watching, his own actions having no effect whatsoever. He could have gone off on a vision quest in the middle of the scene, and the story would have stayed the same.
I broke my block by doing some free writing. Why was my character essential to the events happening in story? (Hint: up to this point, he wasn't.) How could I rewrite the scene so that it was more difficult for my character? What would his true, unique reactions be to these events? How would they change the outcome of the scene?
Turns out, introducing a different character who made his life harder would be a better way to go. It would bring out the parts of him that had been hiding under a pile of dreck, and bring life to the story again. So that's what I'm working on today.
Next time you run into a wall, where events seem to be spooling out without your character having an effect, take a step back. Get to the essence of who that character is. Now, spin the scene. What events would make this scene harder for this particular person? List some possibilities. Go with the strongest one, and try a hundred words in that direction. If that's working, try a hundred more.
Did this exercise work for you? How do you bring life to your characters and story when you get stuck?