Unruly Characters

Characters. When we talk about stories, we tend to talk in terms of what I call the Big Three categories: Setting, Plot and Character. There are as many different ways to build and develop characters as there are writers. Some use sheets, some prefer not to use sheets, some like to write drabbles and scenes with their characters before writing the full story, some like to develop as they go – there are a thousand and one ways to make your characters.

But people do seem to butt heads about a particular aspect: whether or not characters ‘run away from you’, and ‘do their own thing’. Personally, this doesn’t happen to me much, but I have some writer friends who talk about this happening all the time.

I must admit I have a knee-jerk reaction to the phrase. I don’t like it – just like the concept of a ‘muse’, I feel like it puts too much emphasis on writing as mystical art, rather than a craft. I’ve known a lot of people use the ‘muse’ to avoid examining their writing habits, and as a self-defeating excuse not to try harder to reach goals that they then complain about not reaching. For the record, I firmly believe that a writer doesn’t need to ‘want’ to be professional, or maintain a certain output, in order to be considered a ‘real’ or ‘serious’ writer – if you need to wait till the ‘muse’ strikes and you find ways to work around that to get what you want out of writing, then more power to you. But there is a perception that because writing is controlled by the ‘muse’, your output is entirely controlled by factors that are randomly assigned at birth, and that can be a self-defeating or self-limiting belief. Similarly, the belief that “the characters do what they want” I see used as a sort of existential shrug to the idea that the writer could change the plot after it was written, even if it had plot holes and inconsistencies.

I also remember a lot of time when I was actually a bit nervous of saying that my characters never ran away from me. It would always feel like I was trying to brag about my ‘control’ – people would react as if I’d cracked some secret of writing, or as if they thought I thought I had. There were a lot of articles I read about how ‘good’ characters didn’t follow your plot, and that that’s how you knew they were fleshed out, deep characters.

As is perfectly obvious from the previous paragraph, I had (and let’s be fair, probably still have) a lot of unfair opinions about people who had the ‘characters run away from me’ belief, and about people who write to the schedule of a ‘muse’. But I don’t like it when I have unfair opinions about people and their beliefs, so I started to unpick things.

The muse, I’ve mostly unpicked, I think. I mean, I have good writing days and bad writing days, after all. It’s not a foreign concept to me – the change is only in the approach and priorities. So, I am pretty sure that there’ll be something similar in the ‘characters run away’ idea.

For a long time, I was tempted to put this down as a distinction between Plotters and Pantsers, but I don’t think that’s the case. The thinking went, in my original theory, that characters didn’t run away from Plotters so much, because they’d done a lot of the character development legwork already, so the characters were closer to their final form (after all, they’ve gone through over 9,000 plot tweaks by the time a Plotter gets to putting them on the page). By contrast, the Pantser hasn’t done the prior transformations, and thus the characters tend to change and adapt on the page, which is part of the process of figuring out the character.

But I don’t think that’s exactly true. After all, one of the great pieces of advice given to Plotters is that strict adherence to the plot as outlined is to the detriment of the story – often specifically because of characters changing and ‘running away’ once they hit the page. I also know Pantsers who can worldbuild on the fly and plot on the fly, but their characters have to be solid in their heads first, or the plot has no catalyst and doesn’t go anywhere.

Besides, if we know anything about writing, it’s that everything gets more complicated than you initially expect.

Of course, I can only speak for myself on this one, but I think there’s another aspect that goes into it as well. Because the characters very rarely run away with me … but the plot very often does.

I’m a 75% plotter – I like to know most of the big plot points when I go in, but be flexible about how I get between them. Characters do tend to warp when they hit the page, but they very rarely actually change in any significant fashion, but it is extremely common for me to have to add small subplots and digressions that I wasn’t planning, in order to make those pieces connect and work together.

I think there’s something similar at work. Stories do have a tendency to twist and turn when they start being written, as you add throwaway lines that change implications, jokes that you want to call back to, and as you realise that you need setup for a particular revelation, which requires some extra scenes. Characters do the same thing – you see the start, and you see their endpoint, but as the plot changes to accommodate the right beats, character beats change places as well.

I said I have unfair prejudices on this topic and I meant it – the first thing I thought to conclude this with was that the ‘characters run away with the plot’ is a response to the organic changes in a plot as the details get filled, but attributing them to characters rather than to the pieces of the entire story slotting into place. Obviously that’s condescending – it implies that all writers who attribute plot changes to characters aren’t examining their story at the same depth as someone who, more experienced, ‘understands’ how the whole machine works.

But I do think that a character ‘changing’ the story is a response born of the subconscious recognising that the plot is somehow not being served by the current plan (plan here used to include outline, but also to include the informal ‘and then maybe this’ style ideas that a Pantser might have during the process). Either the characters have been better established, and something doesn’t fit quite right with their personalities anymore, thus, the plot needs to change. Or perhaps a character was going against the tone or theme of the work, and that needed to be addressed.

I don’t think it’s a problem for characters to do unexpected things – I think it’s often necessary. I also think it’s a good sign that your subconscious is picking up on things that you might not be consciously aware of. But I think it can be a good thing to include in your process as well. If you know that your characters tend to take your plots in different directions, you can plan around that.

And as always, I may well be missing something. Maybe because my characters don’t tend to break my rules often, I’m completely misinterpreting what’s going on. Feel free to come and let me know in the comments. I’d be interested to hear from people with runaway characters, about how you deal with it and how it affects your writing.

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