Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Story Out of Control, Characters Taking Over

by Pat Stoltey

I'm working on major revisions to a novel manuscript I started writing a couple of years ago. Lynnette Foster's story began as a simple novel of suspense. The first outline had only one chapter that was not in her point of view.

When one of the bad guys grew bigger than the part I had given him, I gave him a few chapters of his own. He was only a minor bad guy, so it became necessary to give his bad guy boss a bigger part in the story. Bad guy boss POV clarified the plot. I now had the outline of a multiple point of view novel written in 3rd person past tense. It was looking good.

That single original non-Lynnette point of view chapter that I mentioned in the second sentence, however, created the need for a sub-plot taking place half a country away from Lynnette's location. Yep, I needed scenes from the cops' point of view. There was a good female cop and her very unimportant male partner, and a detective with a nasty attitude. I reined this unruly bunch in, thank goodness.

While I had my back turned, concentrating on the cops, my first minor bad guy dropped dead. What? I didn't plan for that to happen. I loved writing scenes while pretending to be this guy--using foul language and acting like a slimeball. It was great. How could my story move forward without this guy?

Okay, I obviously had to bring another minor bad guy into the mix. He, unfortunately, showed up with a sub-plot of his own. Holy crap, I thought. Where did this guy come from and why is he messing with my story?

I sat back and listened to my characters fight about their roles in my (their?) novel and wondered whether I even knew what I was doing with a story this big. They seemed to want control. They wanted this book to be less of a suspense novel and more of a thriller, and they had some great ideas how to make it work.

In the end, however, their plot didn't work at all. That's what this rewrite is all about.

It's pretty cool to have the characters surprise us now and then, but when the author doesn't retain control, the story can get very messy. I'm back in charge now.

Isn't this writing gig weird?


Margot Kinberg said...

Pat - Thanks for sharing the way your characters have taken on lives of their own. That can make them pesky in some ways (not to mention full of themselves!). It also makes them real and authentic and fresh. That makes a story better. I think every author has to find a way to balance the need for real, round characters with the need for a focused story...

Giles Hash said...

I've never really felt like I had the freedom to let my characters take control. Sometimes I'll write in something that was completely unplanned, but whenever I deviate from the outline, it has to be intentional. Maybe I'm weird that way :)

Marlena Cassidy said...

I had that happen once. Poor dear, I had to cut out all her chapters and her character entirely because she just derailed everything. I was sad, but the manuscript couldn't support an extra character.

I'm trying to keep my characters tightly in check in my latest manuscript, but they're fighting at their leashes and want to do all sorts of crazy things. I'll have to bookmark this post, Patricia, so that I can remind myself to be vigilant.

Patricia Stoltey said...

I admit I had a lot of fun writing this novel, but because of the detours, it has taken me a lot longer than it should have.

Giles, it's good to be as disciplined as you are. I suspect you'll be more productive over time than I am.

Margot and Marlena, thanks for stopping by (and keep an eye on your characters at all times).

Ella said...

I have heard about this happening; I haven't experienced it, yet. Powerful...there is something to be said for the bad guy, he adds a lot of color to the story. I am glad you were able to take control of the reins and gain back control! Maybe this guy could be a book all on his own. :D

Patricia Stoltey said...

Hi Ella -- he could, except he's still dead. It would have to be a prequel. :)

lesleylsmith said...

Hi Pat, I've experienced this many times and still unsure if it's a blessing or a curse! I generally let the characters run rampant--but that does lead to a lot of revisions and extra work. But what can you do? The muse wants what the muse wants. :) Good luck with the novel!

Jan Morrison said...

Oh, yeah, baby, yeah. They totally take over. In my current one, the darn plot moved to a different province because of things completely out of my control. It's wild. And now, halfway through one of my hopefully last revisions, my novel is telling me it wants to be in third person, not first. OK. Back to work.

Patricia Stoltey said...

Lesley,I've decided it's both, but it can be very frustrating when you need to go back and clean up the mess.

Jan, I have another manuscript sitting here waiting for one more editing read...and part of my last rewrite was to change the main character's chapters from 1st to 3rd person. I'm still not convinced it was the right thing to do. Time will tell.

Shannon said...

In every novel I've written there comes a point when the characters I made up to fit my plot suddenly become real. It is the coolest, strangest feeling. I don't know how else to describe it but before that happens, the writing is stiff. After that, they often take control from me.

Barbara Graham said...

My characters love to create chaos like that. It's probably why it takes me so long to "finish" a manuscript. Every character has to sign off on it. Fun and frustrating.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Glad my characters never take over like that!

Lester D. Crawford said...

From before day one I have had a plan and outline of the path of my current story. While working through the telling of the tale, I have hit every waypoint of the charted journey. However, the characters do have a fondness for revealing new and often incredible facts. Many unexpected surprises have sprung up along the trail as I travel, but always I reach, as planned, the next way station on the road.

The depth of the story is far better than what I had originally envisioned, so I am grateful for what my characters have done to enhance the legend. This is not to say these enhancements by the characters have not had a significant impact. What was once planned as a single book is now a five book series.

I am blessed that this special story has chosen me as her conduit for expression. The story reveals herself to me as I write, always insisting I tell her the way she wants herself told. At the end of the ride, I will take the responsibility for and ownership of the story, at which time I will edit and revise as needed to hone the epic into a best seller. Until then, the story is my mistress, and a harsh mistress she is.

Beth Groundwater said...

Glad to know you're whipping those characters into shape, Pat!

Susan S said...

I'm with Marlena on this one...

The last time a character tried to take over my novel, I killed him. First literally and then figuratively. I killed him off in the story line, but then realized that he still had ripples that exerted too much control, so I ended up deleting him entirely and giving his "vital lines" to others instead.

1000% improvement in the story.

The only thing I felt a little badly about was that he was nine years old. It did make me feel better about eliminating him rather than killing him off, however. I try not to do in animals or children if I can help it (or unless there's a very, very good reason - which, in historical fiction, does occur, but rarely).

Curiously, everyone else has stayed more or less in line since then. Apparently the old Chinese proverb about "shooting a monkey to scare the chickens" actually works - at least on the voices in my head.

Eric W. Trant said...

This is how many early novels wind up with too many sub-plots!

I just read Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions. It mentions this point exactly, and V says he disagrees with randomly selecting one character out of the world to focus on. He wanted a book that focused equally on every character from the waitress in the bar to the homeless guy on the street to the two main characters orbiting the central plot.

There are a lot of characters in that book!

- Eric

Patricia Stoltey said...

Thanks for the excellent comments, everyone! There are so many wonderful ways for a story to unfold and so many ways for our characters to surprise us. It's a magical way to spend our hours, isn't it?

Anonymous said...

Ah - the curse of a pantser. (I'm one too) I even tried plotting out the novel I am working on this time around, and when I did it, the plot totally made sense, followed a nice arc, etc. etc. blah blah blah. But then I actually got down to the writing of it and, well, as I got to know my characters better it didn't work out or make sense at all and trying to follow it nearly killed the book.
There are plotters who are very prolific because they organize and then write. And there are plotters who take as much time as a disorganized, prone to chaos pantser because they take a such a long time perfectly organizing every thought.
And then there are the pantsers who, despite the chaos, are quite prolific simply because they allow The Muse to take over and write for them.
Everyone has their own path, some of us battle unruly characters, some of us battle our own OCD, some of us battle our hung-over, head in the gutter, always late for work Muse.
But in the end, we all get the job done - and what a rush when it all finally clicks into place!
Good luck taming your characters and book.
Just reading about your epic battle makes me ache to read the book!