Nearly everyone who has written a novel has had the experience of writing an unruly character who suddenly takes the story in a different direction than you anticipated. Even the best outline can quickly go up in smoke.
This is a good sign! It means you’re listening to the internal logic of the character and you’re adjusting accordingly.
At the same time, it’s risky to lose control of a character and let them run away with your novel. You might fall in love with a minor character a little too hard, or halfway through the book you might start writing a different novel than the one you started.
Here’s some advice for walking that fine line between being true to a character and letting them run roughshod over your novel.
Look carefully at the moment the character broke free
Chances are there’s a particular moment where a character will bounce out of the frame you’d put them in. Stop for a sec and think about what really happened there.
Ask yourself some questions:
- Is the plotline you were envisioning not true to the character?
- Did you make an important discovery about the character that needs to be woven through the rest of the novel?
- Is this the real beginning of the story?
- Did you just find the real voice of the novel?
- Did the character suddenly become active and before they were too passive?
And perhaps most importantly, ask yourself…
Are you writing the novel you really want to be writing?
Particularly when the character who starts running away with the novel is a minor character, it should be a gut check moment about the novel you had been writing to that point.
Think about what excites you about the new storyline. Is it the humor? The excitement? The personality? The voice?
And is that what you really want to be writing?
The answer to that question may well be “no” and you’re still headed in the right direction on the whole, but it should be a moment to self-reflect.
You need to be excited about every chapter
That rush of excitement you feel about the new direction the character is headed in? You should feel that way all the time. About every chapter.
Now… easier said than done. Writing is not always fun and it’s often accomplished in a mix of bursts and slogs.
But if you’re not excited about a particular stretch of the novel and then you suddenly feel unlocked… it’s probably worth revisiting the stretch you weren’t excited about and think about how you can revise to give those parts elements you are excited about.
You’re still in charge
A burst of inspiration is great. Creating a character who leaps off the page is thrilling. But make sure to rein it in. You have final say.
Going solely with the whims of a character you’ve created can start to feel a tad self-indulgent if it’s not in the service of a story. You still need all the storytelling fundamentals.
So sure, go with it, trust your instincts, let the character’s logic pull you forward. But when a character breaks out, it’s crucial to make sure everything still holds together in the end.
Have you ever had a character run away with your novel? Have you ever seen it in a novel? Any advice? Take to the comments!
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Art: Paysage À Cagnes by Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Marilynn Byerly says
I create the characters to fit the plot or theme, not the other way, so my characters behave and don’t go running off in another direction. The only time a character ever changed things was in an early scene of a science fiction romance. I wanted an alien pet for the heroine to show, yes, this is another planet and culture. I chose a kind-of-a-cat to be reader-friendly for non-sf geeks. He jumped up on the heroine’s lap, told me he was sentient, and he was in charge of making her happy, not the dang hero. Since this was a cat and I’m well-trained by my four-legged overlords, I let him have his way, and he became a major character. To quote, WC Fields, “Never work with kids or animals.”
Johannah S. says
I love when characters run away a bit! For me it’s the main joy of writing, to listen to a character that’s not just another version of me. I don’t know how I’d ever write dialogue if I didn’t give them some slack in the leash. Then again, I do build main characters first, plot second, so it’s rare for any of them to run too far into the weeds.
Robin Claire says
This is a timely post for me. I just experienced this where a secondary character grabbed focus. I was so excited about writing this character and their interactions with others, but over time, I realized she did not function within the themes of the book and they trampled my outline in the second act. I had to remove her from the book, but a version of her will appear in the next volume of the series, and then she can run amuck.
JOHN T. SHEA says
Perhaps the runaway character deserves his or her own separate short story or novel!
Wendy Williams says
My characters in a crime novel behaved right up until the last chapter. The case was solved, the USB was safe, the baddies were dead, the protaganists were safe. Then at the very end, one of the good guys said no! very loudly in my head. He was not going to let me tie up all the loose ends and he disappeared, USB in hand. Queue sequel (not yet attempted).
In my current work in progress, the plot was for a fatal hit and run. Right up until the car hit the body the victim was going to die. The driver and victim just wouldn’t let me do it.
I actually love it when my characters surprise me with their actions. It lets me know that they are individual characters in their own right and not just a projection of me.
Well written, brother Nathan. Very well written.
NC Overton says
Very good article. While my character didn’t actually run away with the plot, he did start to evolve from his initial personality. Reading this post helped me work through some things and realize he was right to change. He will definitely add a little twist to the end of the novel!