Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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March 24, 2017

Give Your Characters a Do-Over


Jessica Strawser

Ever wished you could have a do-over?

Join the club. We’re all members—including your characters.

Our longing to rewind time can range from the frivolous (I may have once backed my car into something incredibly loud right in front of a guy I had a crush on—and the loud thing may have been a “Watch Children” sign) to the torturous (if only, if only, if only you’d asked if your neighbor kept guns in the house before letting your child go over to play).

Highly motivated characters are often driven by an intense yearning or longing—this is paramount in the teachings of David Corbett, one of my favorite writers on the subject of character (who wrote the fine book The Art of Character, and who I made quick work of adding to our stable of contributing editors at Writer’s Digest). Corbett delves into thoughtful detail to show that such longings, to minor degrees or major extremes, can define who our characters are, motivate what they do (or don’t do), and make them more relatable to the reader.

As I make my own way as a novelist, in part because of the sorts of stories that have called me to write them, I’ve discovered that when it comes to yearning, the desire for a do-over is tops among the most agonizing, unshakeable, and all too familiar.

We might sometimes get second chances, but an actual do-over is simply not possible—unless, in your story world, it is: Behold, the success of the Back to the Future franchise and some of my favorite fantastical novels, including Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife and Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. In those cases, the do-over is the story, and that’s exactly what draws us in.

For characters who do not have access to a DeLorean, this type of yearning comes in two flavors:

  1. Things they wish had happened differently.
  1. Things they wish they could do differently.

(As with soft serve, you can also serve up do-overs in swirl.)

The key difference here relates to the level of control the character had over the outcome. Cursing the fact that the universe did not smile upon you is a different thing from holding oneself responsible for disaster: a mistake, a bad decision, an err in judgment, a thoughtless word.

Getting Caught in a Storm

Countless stories are fueled by characters who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. In Jacquelyn Mitchard’s Two If By Sea, the protagonist has, by a freakish stroke of luck (if you could call it that), survived a tsunami that washed away his family. He wishes he hadn’t been staying at that seaside resort on that night, wishes they’d been with him when he happened up to higher ground, wishes anything about that day had transpired differently, but it’s no use wishing. He cannot go back; he has to find a forward.

This kind of longing need not drive your entire plot, or even your protagonist. A backstory along these lines can add complexity to any subplot or character. And you can exploit it to your story’s advantage.
What might happen if you:

  • Brought someone back from the “dead” (Harlan Coben has used this in multiple thrillers, most recently Fool Me Once).
  • Bring in a ghost (Garth Stein’s A Sudden Light does this literally—complete with an old house, secret passages, and family secrets).
  • Gave him another shot at something he thought he missed out on (this one factors into my own novel Almost Missed You—and its title).

Beating Yourself Up

Ah, but it was your character’s fault. Or at least, it feels that way. Will she ever forgive herself?

If your plot needs a twist or a character needs dimension, consider these possibilities for the backstory or the present action:

  • An accident. The most heartrending example of this I’ve read recently is from Lisa Duffy’s gorgeous The Salt House, out this June, where a mother holds herself responsible for the choking hazard that found its way into her infant’s crib.
  • What’s been said. Forget sticks and stones—words hurt, and you can’t take them back. What does this character wish he had kept to himself? The reprimand that sent the rebellious teen packing? The new product idea that his rival stole? The affair his spouse had been trying to ignore? The drunken text? The angry email?
  • The wrong choice. What does your character wish she’d said “yes” to? What does she wish she’d turned down?
  • A roadblock. What if your character still thought she could fix things, but you snatch the opportunity away?

Remember: Chocolate and vanilla can be deliciously intertwined. Two out of three of these ideas factor into Almost Missed You, which is all about fate, and choices—and my next novel plays with some from Column A and some from Column B too.

Do it now: Ask your characters what they’d do over if they could.

How might they surprise you?

*     *     *     *

About Jessica

Jessica Strawser is the editorial director of Writer’s Digest, North America’s leading publication for aspiring and working writers since 1920. Her debut novel, Almost Missed You, is forthcoming from St. Martin’s Press releases on March 28, and has garnered accolades from Chris Bohjalian, Adriana Trigiani, Garth Stein and others.

She loves connecting with fellow writers (and readers) at Facebook.com/jessicastrawserauthor and on Twitter @jessicastrawser.

26 comments on “Give Your Characters a Do-Over”

  1. Thanks for a jogging my thoughts this morning—I'm working out character traits for the main character of a new series, a spin-off of the last series, and you've helped me come up with some good ideas—your post was timely for me! 🙂

  2. Oh Jessica, this is something I love to torture my characters with - the yearning for a do-over. I've had a woman who felt responsible for her dead child (The Sweet Spot), a scarred woman just out of prison (Nothing Sweeter), and a ex-army medic with survivor's guilt (Sweet on You), and that's just one series! Guilt and regret are emotions I explore in almost every book.

    But don't think that says anything about me...nah....not me.

    Thanks for the great blog!

    1. Just yesterday I was listening to the TED Radio Hour podcast and there was a guest (the son of Vietnamese immigrants to the U.S.) talking about how in some languages, there IS no subjective verb tense: *Literally* no "could have," "would have," "should have." And thus, people in those cultures don't really think in those terms or ponder what might have been as much has we do. I found that fascinating, that this kind of yearning can actually be a cultural thing, because it's so ingrained in ours. I'm still mulling that over... I want to learn more.

        1. He pointed out that in some ways we'd be better off without the subjective, because it can eat you alive -- but then again it's the "should," "would," and "could" that have driven things like the civil rights movement in great forward progress.

          I hadn't thought of it that way either, but it's well worth thinking more about both in life and in fiction, I think.

  3. Love this!!! And so timely. I've spent the week revising and playing up a few of the "if onlys" in this new book. 🙂

  4. Thank you, Jessica, for this timely post! I'm trying to resurrect a dull character. Love alphas, but this one wants to be a "Harvey Milquetoast". I'm going to apply some of your "twists" and see if that works to make him a bit more human.

  5. Jessica, I was skeptical. I take in so much advice on writing that don't know where to go with it all, and I thought "Here's another tool to try with my next project." But why wait? I'm not entirely satisfied with my current WIP, so I slipped over to Scrivener and talked to my protago at the end of her journey. Boy, did she have a lot to say about doing it over. I found significant insights that I would have missed without your advice. Thank you sharing your expertise.

    1. I amaze myself at the ability to read over a post four times and still miss a word. Can I have a do-over on that last sentence?

      1. Ha! Twitter and comments threads are both lacking edit buttons. 🙂 But I'm so happy to hear this is already working for you. Sounds like an interesting conversation with your protagonist--oh, to be a fly on the wall! Best of luck to you, and keep us posted!

  6. Wow that's an awesome post. I need to remember this. I think I can use it in what I'm trying to write now and my Camp NaNo novel next month. There's a lot of chances there that they wish they could do over.

    1. Really glad to hear it resonated--thanks for taking the time to say so! Wonderful that you're doing Camp NaNo, too, even with a work-in-progress. I'll be cheering for you!

  7. A good reminder of ways we can make our stories more interesting. I'll squirrel it away because I can already see how it will work in one of my "pending projects." Thanks.

  8. I love the advice and your book. I am awaiting the next one. I will miss you at WD, but we all have to move on. I will use these ideas on my series of detective novels. Thank you, G

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