What to do with a runaway character

Silk’s Post #3 — Did you ever have an imaginary friend as a child? Are your dreams populated by people you’ve never met in real life? When you’re sitting at the airport waiting for a plane, do you imagine biographies for the people you see?

For example: that kid with the backpack over there – yeah, the one who’s pretending to read a book but is really keeping watch, eyes darting, restless. He’s trying not to appear worried. Looks like he’s expecting to meet someone. Girlfriend, maybe. They had a fight yesterday, and now he’s not sure she’s going to show up. They’re supposed to be leaving on their first trip together, a trip to – hmm, what flight leaves from that gate? – Las Vegas. Aha. Maybe they’re eloping. Now he’s afraid she’s got cold feet. Or … maybe he’s trying to avoid someone. Maybe he’s a runaway.

Do you do this kind of thing? Writers do.

And here’s the funny part: in the process of inventing a character for your story, there’s a magical tipping point when that character – sometimes quite suddenly – stands up on their own two feet and becomes animated. If you’re skilled. Or just plain lucky. From that point forward, your character is in charge. They tell you what they will and will not do. What they’ll say. How they’ll feel.

Of course, you can’t share all this right away with your readers. That would spoil everything. They have to get to know (and care about) your characters the hard way – clue by clue, one emotional connection at a time. The writing gurus tell us that if we keep readers guessing, we’ll keep them turning pages. I believe that applies to characters as well as to plot.

But in the meantime, the writer has these characters straining at the leash. In fact, sometimes they simply run away with the plot, the author following behind and wondering where the hell it’s all going. And apparently it happens to the old hands as well as the newbies. I remember reading, with great delight, an account of how one bestselling author completely changed the long-plotted ending of his book when he realized (probably to his chagrin) that there was no way his protagonist would do what the plot called for.

Protagonist: one. Author: zero. End of story.

I’m still in the planning stage right now, and – as Paula wrote in her post on outlining – it’s hard not to rush to get words on the page when the clock is ticking. But it’s the characters who will animate my plot, so there’s no point starting the story until they’re ready to roll. Pushing inanimate characters around your scenes is like trying to get Frankenstein’s monster to dance Swan Lake. It ain’t pretty.

I learned this lesson in my first book. I created a fully-dimensioned protagonist (or so I thought), but somehow even I had a hard time relating to him. He just never completely came to life. However, another character did come to life and stole the show. Some of my esteemed critique buddies even suggested turning this supporting character into the protagonist. Maybe, maybe not. It’s just one of the little issues I need to deal with in rewrite (sigh).

But here’s the lucky news for the story I’m writing now: my protagonist has literally leaped off the page from my character study, and happens to be sitting beside me right now. She’s tapping her toe as I write this, anxious to get going. Being an energized character waiting for your story to start is really a bore, she tells me.

“Okay, so give me something to do. Or let me help,” she said a few minutes ago.

“Take it easy”, I replied, careful not to let my husband hear me talking to myself. “I need to assemble the rest of the cast first, okay? You can’t be in a story by yourself. And it would be nice to nail down the plot details and do a little research, don’t you think?”

“Well you’ve got your premise, so what’s the hold up? I can help. Want to know about my family? First there’s—”

“Alright, already! I’m just going to finish this blog post and then we’ll put our heads together and get this done.”

“Good. I’m ready,” she said (that’s when the toe-tapping started). “Where’s the coffee?”

I’ll let you know how it goes. Right now I have to go put on a pot of coffee for me and my runaway character.

3 thoughts on “What to do with a runaway character

  1. I don’t do character studies. Like reading a list of attributes, it doesn’t let me know the character – I just head in and write and lean about them as I follow them around – yeah, they’re wooden to start with, but eventually, they come to life and start being independent and wrenching the plot to suit themselves, and there’s lots of crumbled paper and pixels littering the floor when I’m done – but I wouldn’t do it any other way. I can’t – it’s the only way I can learn who these people are, by interacting with them and getting to know them just as I would a real person. But I will keep repeating – what works for me might not work for you – so do what gets the characters moving. Keep going. You’re going to do this and surprise yourself.

  2. Thanks for your feedback Bev! I don’t really have “my way” to do things yet — just trying everything and learning as I go!

  3. I’ll tell you about runaway characters! I started a short story,a first person narrative through the eyes of a young male in his late teens, 18 or 19. Typical of males in that age bracket, he wasn’t all that interested in what I wanted him to do or be, so instead of listening to me, he dragged my short story into a long novel. I have daughters, but I was once a son, and should have seen that coming, I guess.

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