About two and a half years ago, I had the pleasure of seeing Jim Butcher speak at a convention near Baltimore. I’m a big enough fanboy for his work that I was wearing a (still incomplete) Harry Dresden costume when I asked him point blank how he deals with characters who refuse to cooperate – that is, you’ve written yourself into a corner and maybe you’re not sure where to go next because nothing feels ‘authentic’ to the character image you have in your head.
There’s a lot of fear that goes into writing and most of it belongs to the writer. You form an attachment to your characters, especially if you’re trying to put together a series. You get worried about them, you empathize with them, and at some level, unless you’re a bloodthirsty maniac, you don’t really want to see anything too awful happen to them.
Per the notes that I was scribbling furiously at the time, his answer went to the effect of Railroad them to the end that you want; don’t be too cautious about what you do to them; these people work for you, not the other way around.
There’s wisdom in that and it’s gotten me through drafting three books in the time since I saw him speak. I’m working on book four right now and I’ve hit one of those points where, once upon a time, I would’ve faceplanted into a corner and not known what to do, mostly because I wouldn’t want the characters hurt too badly to go on. Nowadays that isn’t the case.
The question isn’t if the character’s going to be hurt, but where, when, and in what way. How to spin the collateral damage and manage the fallout is an adventure in itself, and writing wouldn’t be worth doing without it.