A couple of months ago, I was writing a story that I was enjoying telling. One that I had no idea where it was going, but it was fun just to run with it. The characters were doing their own thing, which is usually always enjoyable because you are not trying to make them fit any particular pattern. Then one character suddenly started demanding more and more space, which was not the general idea. He wasn’t even the protagonist or the antagonist, for Pete’s sake!
A lot of writers throw their hands up in horror when this happens. They have a plan in mind and their characters will do as THEY want them to, not what the character appears to want to do. By forcing the character to do what you want them to do, the story almost always becomes stilted and artificial and it shows. This usually results in the writer throwing the whole thing out. Or, if it is published, the reader leaving vague reviews which are neither positive or negative, or they lose interest quickly.
There is no need to have this happen. Take a good look at the story. This is when putting that particular story away in a drawer for a bit – maybe a week or so – then coming back to it and seeing it from a fresh perspective is the best way to move forward. Stephen King advocates putting that manuscript away for as long as it takes to get involved in a new story and then going back to it because the story and the characters are blurred in your mind’s eye by then and you will have developed some detachment.
We favor all our creations. New writers can be hopeless with removing a character they have made or has grown a life of their own. They have no desire to ‘kill’ the character. There is nothing wrong with this. The only thing that can go wrong is removing that character from the world of story completely. You will have wasted someone who could fit in another story perfectly.
Never get rid of a character completely. You can always find a story to fit them, just maybe not that one. A mentor of mine said to never throw any of your work away. She was right. If you can, make files and keep those characters in there for another time. There are plenty of apps available these days to do this and not clog up your computer. In anyone’s lifetime, they will have more ideas for stories than they can ever write, so having a character on tap, so to speak, is a gold mine in reserve.
If you cannot bear to cut the character back severely, then see if you can reorganize your story so it takes the side of that character. But ensure you do this early in the story, so it flows easily. By watching what your characters do, you can see when they are about to make a break for freedom and either cut them back sharply or allow your story to follow the usurper.
But perhaps the best thing you can do is to make two stories out of the one. If you have a list of story ideas in another folder, see if any of them will fit the character and carry on. This can save you from that awful block which can appear when you have poured your heart and soul into a story and have nothing anywhere left to work with.
In other words, don’t waste any of your work. You can always cannibalize story ideas, mix and match and always have something to be working on without simply sitting staring at a blank screen or a pad. Stories are fluid. They are not set in stone. Or at least not until they are half-written. But, at the same time, they have a destiny to get to; the path to there may be filled with interesting by-ways and paths that called to be explored.
However, that is another path that we will explore another day. For now, we will concentrate on what to do with a character who decides to take over the story. Before you do anything with him or her, explore them thoroughly. Can they actually be a better choice for your protagonist or villain? If they are and your story would be stronger by using them instead, then change it and save your original character for somewhere else.
This is all part of the learning curve that writers go through at one point. Some may say that by designing your characters before you start your story you won’t have this happen. Probably it won’t. But perhaps your story won’t be as good as it could be if you don’t at least look at the option of substituting one of the characters for another, or removing one altogether.
It is your story, first and last. And, as such, it should be the best you can make it. We have all read a book or short story where the characters are two-dimensional and wooden. How much better that story would have been if some other character had been the protagonist or the villain.
Something to think about anyway!
What’s your take on it? I’d love to hear!