Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Painting Your Characters into a Corner: 5 Ways to Deal

Okay, writers, let’s talk about The Corner. You know what I mean. That place no writer wants to go, much less his/her characters. That awful, dark, trapped place that you’ve led your protagonist to and where you’ve abandoned him/her with no window, no ladder and no idea on how to get out of there. What’s a writer to do??

Well, I don’t have a magic bullet (although, if your character has to shoot his way out of a maximum security prison, magic bullets do help, implausible though they may be) but I do have a few thoughts on how one might get your hero out of the jam you’ve put him in. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of magic to it.

1. Don’t Panic. Do Review Your Plot
There’s been a whole lot of writing that has led up to this corner. Go back and review your story up until now. Look for hidden clues that might give you a solution. You might have subconsciously written a piece of dialogue that allows for a minor secondary character to come in and help your hero save the day. If you don’t see any clues, then go back and write them in! Maybe you want to leave a certain piece of equipment lying around that might help out the character, or an abandoned road that gives an alternative getaway. Those ‘clues’ should only be mentioned in passing through dialogue or description before the unsolvable situation – just little nuggets of information – that you can pull out later when you need your character to break away from the corner.

2. Go Over Your Main Character’s Personality Traits and Motivation/Goals
Ask yourself, how would your hero react to this situation? Would he do something out of character here? Why? Would desperation make him do that? If your painted corner is really desperate, it might be enough to make that character do something (a criminal act??) that they might not have done before. Especially if his motivation/goals are strong enough to drive him forward from one painted corner into another one. But make sure if he’s going to do something that rebellious or desperate that you have set it up or hinted at that potential. And be prepared to live with the consequences! The reader must believe that your quiet, mousey hero has shown something (like running in front of a car to save his neighbour’s cat) early on in the story to then not be too surprised that when something he cares about is in danger his adrenaline starts to pump and it’s not too far a stretch to believe he will jump down a ravine to save the girl he loves.

3. Write/Outline Different Options for Resolution
No matter how crazy they seem or how far-fetched write those ideas down! See where those options might take you. I know this goes against many pantsers methods but brainstorming solutions (whether on your own or with others) is not the same as writing a complete outline. It can be very loose process and might just give you the spark/idea you need to move forward. Sometimes, the solution you come up with might take your character to another corner (that’s what just happened to me in this WIP). If that’s the case, don’t despair. Think of corners as a naturally escalating the conflict in your story. Escalating conflict is a Good Thing. How many corners can your character get out of? Too many and it becomes unbelievable (unless you’re doing a thriller where problems should be stacking up one after another throughout the book). Just don’t worry if you have more than one corner. Where one solution exists, so will another one.

4. Let Your Characters Sit in the Corner for Awhile
Walk away from the WIP. Sometimes your brain needs to digest the problem for a bit. If you stare at the scene every day and are getting more frustrated than inspired, it will not only paint your character into the corner, you’ll end up building a brick wall around him with barbed wire on top.

Walk. Away. Muse on it.

Let your brain do its weird story telling magic. Think about ALL the characters you’ve written. What are they doing when your hero is in that corner? Does a sub-plot create an opportunity to resolve what’s happening in your hero’s corner? Is there something/someone unexpected or underused until now that might create a disruption/surprise to the plot? If you’re surprised the reader will be too. Again, that's a Good Thing.


5. Don’t Despair! The Corner Can Be a Good Place
Remember when you were a kid, or when you, as a parent, send your kid to the corner, that it was not just about punishment? It was to allow for a Time Out. It was a place to think about all you (your character) had done to get you to there and to think about how to act from that point on. The same can be said when you paint your character into a corner. It is an opportunity to see if your story and your characters are acting the way they should or if you need to re-evaluate their behaviour and if their actions need to change in order to move their story forward in a positive, satisfying way.

What other suggestions do people have for making that corner less frustrating for writers? Let me know!


  1. I agree. Letting your characters sit for awhile may be what you need. Sometimes that distance helps me see things more clearly.

    1. Hi Kelly! Yes, distance does make one fonder of the Corner! :)

  2. Wow, this is REALLY excellent advice! I'm going to bookmark this for all the future corners my characters and I will wind up sitting in!

    One other suggestion I've found over the years is that sometimes my character has ended up in a corner because she's not meant to be there. I need to go back and reexamine what led to that point and what different avenues I could take. But maybe that's all part of your number 5.

    1. Hi Anne! So glad you found it helpful! And, yes, absolutely sometimes you need to find a completely different corner for your hero to get caught in. It's all about what works and what you can work out.

  3. When my characters are in a corner, the mother in me comes alive- and the story starts to pulsate with temple throbbing energy. Get them out!
    I like your suggestion to let them stay there a while. I should try that.

    1. Hi Mirka! Yes, a certain sense of desperate urgency comes over one, doesn't it? But, like with kids, it's sometimes better to let them stew and see if they can figure their way out of the mess they put themselves in. :)