Let Your Characters Write The Story III: Ideas on Trial

It’s summer. Everybody’s thinking about relaxing and going on vacation. Perfect season to talk about how to be a lazy writer and let your characters do the writing for you!

That’s what we’re discussing on Wednesdays this month. Today is the third of four classes. Here are the links to the first two, in case you missed them:

And here’s a recap of the four-step process to letting your characters write the story:

  1. Get a story started. Any way. Any how.
  2. As soon as your first character shows up, resist the urge to create his story for him.
  3. Listen to your deepest instincts, guided by everything you know about the character, and let those instincts guide all your decisions.
  4. Put all your instincts through a trial period to make sure it really is the character talking and not, in fact, you dominating his story.

We’ve already talked about points 1 through 3. Today we explore the fourth: testing your Gut Instincts.

Beware Fake “Instincts”

As you’ve probably noticed by now, this novel writing method is highly subjective and intuitive. All of your decisions–from your MC’s hair color to how she reacts to her best friend’s death (not to mention the very fact that her best friend dies in the story)–are determined by a mere feeling. A sense that “It must be so.”

What I call the Gut Instinct.

But how do you trust your gut? How do you know the reaction you’re having to a particular idea is a True Gut Instinct (a.k.a. your characters pointing the way), and not just you getting all excited over an idea you really like?

I’m glad you asked. For two reasons.

  1. You will not always love the story your character is telling you.
  2. If you try to write a story different from what your characters are telling you, they will either quit talking to you or murder you.

The Futility of Fighting with Your Characters


Getting excited about an idea simply isn’t the same as having a Gut Instinct. Yes, Gut Instincts are usually exciting. But sometimes you may react to a Gut Instinct with dread.

In my WIP Mailboat, my main character, sixteen-year-old Bailey, told me her “dad” wasn’t her real dad. I made up my list of possibilities to explain this, and one option was that she was in foster care. No matter how many times I reviewed the list, or played out different scenarios, “foster care” kept eliciting the Gut Instinct.

I begged her to be wrong. In no way did I feel prepared to write about foster care. I knew nothing about it, except that the system was met passionately with both praise and criticism.

In the end, as always, it was futile of me to suggest that my character didn’t know her own story. I gave in … and started learning about foster care.

And I’m glad I did. My fictional clients are constantly forcing me to expand my comfort zone, and I thank them for it.


The other reason why it’s important to know the difference between a Gut Instinct and a mere thrill is because fictional ghost writing clients can be shockingly vindictive.

There have been far too many times when I’ve charged ahead with an idea I  liked–only to find that my characters had quit talking to me.

As one of my clients so eloquently put it, “I don’t know who  you’re writing about, but that’s not me!”

And those are the nice characters. Others will try to murder you in your sleep or devise some other gruesome end to your existence. One of my characters very nearly lured me into a side-on collision. Not nice.

All that to say: You better be sure you’ve got your Gut Instincts sorted out.

Instincts on Trial

After you think you may have had a Gut Instinct in response to one of your story options, we now enter what I call the trial period or the probation period. Both are apt terms to describe what this phase is all about: testing those Gust Instincts.

Here’s how to tell a genuine Gut Instinct from a phony:

  1. You review your list of possibilities over and over and keep arriving at the same conclusion.
  2. The Gut Instinct is just as strong days, weeks, and months later as it was in the beginning.
  3. One Gut Instinct leads to another Gut Instinct.
  4. A Gut Instinct magically ties together previously disjointed or unrelated parts of the story.

Of these four Gut Tests, the first two are the most important. They must test positive every time in order to confirm an authentic Gut Instinct.

Carve It in Stone

This may be the single most important thing I’ll tell you today: Once an idea has passed the first two Gut Tests, accept it as gospel.

This is one of the great beauties of the Gut Instinct method of story writing. Once a story idea has been confirmed, you don’t have to worry about it ever changing and throwing the rest of your story into chaos. Your characters don’t have the power to change their own pasts any more than you can yours. So you can trust your foundations and build on them with confidence.


It’s been a week now since the last lesson. Perfect.

  1. Review the question you asked your character last week and the list of possibilities you wrote. Which option triggers the Gut Instinct? Is it the same one you got last week? Is the instinct just as strong?
  2. If instead you sense that something feels off, review your list again, maybe expand your list, or try moving on to a different question.

If you have any questions, feel free to leave them in the comments! I’ll be happy to answer. Next week is the final lesson in this series. We’ll explore what to do if things go wrong. I’ll see you then!

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