Friday, November 12, 2010

What to do when your Characters WON'T behave...

You know what I'm talking about. You're writing along, happily involved in your plot, perfectly content with your hero and heroine and everything is going smoothly...

Then that one character, the one you had fully intended to be a secondary, sort of throw-away character, pipes up...

"Hey you. You there with the serious look on your face. Yeah, you. Writer. What about me?"

"What about you? your story line ends in another chapter."

"Oh no it doesn't! I'm not going to go quietly!"

"What does that mean, 'you're not going to go quietly?' I created you. If I say your storyline ends in the next chapter, then it ends in the next chapter. Now, go sit over there and be quiet. I'm at a pivotal plot point and need to concentrate!"

"Oh yeah? Well, concentrate on THIS!"

And that character does something you hadn't really planned for him to do and suddenly your story has changed. Oh, not that he's going to come in and take over completely, but let's face it - he's made a difference and now you're going to have to deal with that.

Sometimes that is more than an author can handle and they allow that secondary character to take over, to become another hero in their story line. Sometimes the author solves this problem by killing that character off. That's all well and good - IF it fits in with the plot. Then again, some (most) authors try to develop that secondary character into his or her own story - promising them the sequel if they'll just behave long enough for the first book to be written.

That's what happened with my first book, Changing Times, where the very bad guy suddenly got a heart. What was I going to do with him now? I had planned on a bloody massacre where the hero got to pummel him into a pulp, but now what? I had to go back and ease up a bit on his villainy, but I've still been smacked by readers.

No, really! I mean someone walked up to me and HIT me with my second book, Changing Hearts, because I made them love the villain they had hated.

Handling unruly secondary characters is a fine art. You want to develop your plot and your main characters to the point that they seem like real people To that end, they need friends, families, co-workers and not just as plot devices.

Keeping a tight rein on those characters without totally stifling them means walking a very fine line. You have to make them believeable and you have to make your readers care about them - just not as much as they care about the main characters. At the same time, you cannot allow them to take over your story. What do you do if that starts to happen?

You can let them have their moment in the sun, let them take over for a little while and see how that works for your story. You can stifle them, pushing them to the background and ignoring their pitiful cries to be heard. You can also open a new document, start writing their story, and see if that will keep them quiet long enough for you to finish what you started.

What do YOU do when those secondary characters try to take over? How do you handle them?

16 comments:

Anonymous said...

I loved this. I had thought I was the only person with unruly secondary characters. I kept asking my critique partner if the hero's bad boy best friend was taking over the story in one of my books. She said no, no, no, but I KNEW he was, because I was enjoying writing him more than the hero. Not a good sign. So yes, I gave him his own book.

Sheila Tenold said...

I'm in this parade too! My current hero's brother presented me with a second story.

I actually enjoy the challenge of secondary characters fighting for their own space on the page. I won't use all the material I end up with, but I do keep it in a folder titled "Story Ideas."

Marilu Mann said...

Hey Anonymous, Thanks for stopping by. :) I completely understand about the BBBF taking over - that'll happen, especially if you find yourself falling for him in addition to your hero! Now you know why menage stories are so popular, right? LOL

Marilu Mann said...

Hi Sheila,

Thanks for commenting! :) Nice of your hero's brother to be so accommodating.

I keep a "story idea" folder on my computer, too, along with one called FFF (file for future) for any news articles or overheard conversations that I might want to incorporate into a story somewhere.

Kristal Lee said...

Hey Marilu!
I'm glad I'm not alone with this dilemma. I've a WIP where my villain truly believes he's seeking justice. He's giving me heck because I'm floundering on how to portray him as the really bad in story one and end up the hero in story two. Geez, these characters! Put them on the page and they want to run amuck. lol

Marilu Mann said...

Hi Kristal,

That's exactly what happened in Changing Times and Changing Hearts - Malcolm Slade is the big bad in the first book, but there was just something about him that kept pulling me in. I simply had to redeem him...hence being hit with the book by a reader...she thought for sure the hero of the second book would be Micah!

V. J. Devereaux aka Valerie Douglas said...

I've had that problem...in one of my fantasy novels (unpublished yet). A secondary character popped up full of life, wonderful energy and character and became crucial to the story. I had no idea he was going to die. When he did, I actually cried... *shakes head, smiling*

Cai said...

Hey VJ,

Thanks for popping in! Don't you hate it, not only when those secondary characters won't do what you tell them to, but THEN have the audacity to become important to the story or to you personally?

I've cried over stories, too. Especially in that 'BIG BLACK MOMENT' when everything is lost...or at least the characters think it is. Even knowing it can't end like that, I sometimes have to stop and take a breath before continuing to write and/or read after that. :)

Jill James said...

I have secondary characters pop up from the ether. I don't plan for them and all of a sudden they are in the room and using up all the dialogue. Usually I go for it to see where it goes. Sometimes they add a new dimension to the story. Maybe mine haven't been unruly enough so far (knock on wood) LOL

Mona Risk said...

I have had that problem but I solved it by giving the secondary character a HEA to be satisfied with, a subplot to show him I don't forget him. I have never written sequels yet.

Paisley Kirkpatrick said...

I have a character that messed up her sisters' lives in two stories so had to give her a story of her own. The problem I had, she was still mean and a trouble maker in my mind. It was not easy to make her 'nice' enough to become a sympathetic heroine. I think it was one of my most challenging characters. It ended up being my most favorite story and the one that I got my first contest win. I guess we just should never give up on them. :)

Debra Glass said...

My main characters are the one who run away with the plot and say things I didn't intend for them to say! (That's why I write bdsm - so I can duly punish them.) :-) Great topic!

Carolyn Hughey said...

When I first began writing and I'd read something from another writer about the characters taking over, I actually thought they were making it up. Now that I'm a seasoned writer, I know the truth. Those dang characters are not going to let you dictate to them when they have another plan!

Thanks for the great post! It's sort of like raising kids again, isn't it?

Kate Hill said...

Great post! Unruly characters are the best kind. Everyone has their own style, but for me I like characters who tell me the story. I might not like what my characters do or say, but if they have their own personality, I'm happy. Compelling secondary characters make great heroes and heroines in other books. Also when I'm reading a story and characters other than the hero and heroine grab me, it makes the story even more enjoyable. With any luck favorite characters will get a story of their own and I'll be able to read more about them. I absolutely love villains, especially ones who have potential to star in their own story. As a reader and a writer I love secondary characters who demand their own space. They make the story richer.

Maggie Toussaint said...

Hi There!

I have unruly secondary characters. They seem to sneak up on me and bushwack me. I think they should go merrily on their way and that's not what happens at all.

Once a sceondary character takes a front seat I go with it, as long as it doesn't derail the story. That secondary character often gets the honor of a book when that happens.

Maggie Toussaint

Joanne said...

I had a character like that. He has since taken over my second manuscript. Quite a hero, that guy.