Characters Striking Out On Their Own

I’ve written before about how my characters sometimes surprise me, doing or saying things that I had not anticipated. At times they have subtly steered by narrative in directions I hadn’t anticipated; on occasion they have taken my books in radically new directions, rendering useless outlines for the the second half of a novel, or even for subsequent volumes in a series.

Now some people will point out that since my characters are products of my imagination, they don’t really do anything. I do this to myself and then I blame my characters. It may happen in my subconscious, I might not be aware of making a decision to change course with my narrative, but the fact remains that on some level, these are all my decisions.

To which I say, “Yes, but . . .”

Because sometimes my characters will assert themselves in other ways. Take, for example, a character from my first series, the LonTobyn Chronicle. The character’s name is Orris, and I initially intended him as a foil for my protagonist and a diversion of sorts for my reader. I wanted him to be dislikable and somewhat suspicious, so that readers of my first book would mistake him for the real villain. (Oh, oops. Um, spoiler alert . . .) But a funny thing happened along the way. I kept on doing terrible things to Orris — I hurt him, I killed his magical familiar, I made him the object of other characters’ unwarranted suspicions, I threw obstacle after obstacle in his path, and he kept coming back stronger than before.
He surprised me so many times that I finally realized that I actually liked him; I certainly respected him. I wanted to know more about him, about what made him so strong and resourceful. I began to delve into his backstory.

Before I knew it, I was making him the focus of more and more chapters. By the time I was finished with that first book, I had decided to make him the lead character in book two. Now again, you can tell me that something in my subconscious made me do this. Orris didn’t — couldn’t! — do anything without my approval. Yeah, okay. Maybe. But the fact remains, whether on their own or in the dark, primal recesses of our minds, our characters sometimes take us and themselves in directions we didn’t intend.

Don’t believe me? Think for a moment about Spike from the Buffy the Vampire Slayer series. Spike started out as a villain, a more-powerful-than-the-usual-vamp challenge for Buffy, a foil for Angel, a colorful bad guy. But over the course of the series he became so very much more. By the end he was a regular on the show, a hero, albeit a flawed one. And while I would never, ever, ever cast doubt on the genius of Joss Whedon, I find it very hard to believe that Joss knew in season one or two (whenever it was he first introduced Spike) that he could have foreseen where that character would wind up. I think it’s far more likely that Joss fell in love with the character and thus found ways to keep bringing Spike back and to give him a larger and larger role in the Buffy storyline.

I think this happens a lot. I have friends who have started series about one character only to have a secondary character assert him or herself in such a way as to practically demand a larger role, or even a spin-off. In my upcoming book, Thieftaker (due out from Tor Books in July, under the name D.B. Jackson), I mention in passing a conjurer with whom my lead character once did battle. It’s a tiny moment in the book — literally a single paragraph out of a 100,000 word book. But then I went back and wrote a short story about that encounter — it’s called “A Spell of Vengeance,” and it will be published at Tor.Com later this spring. And I loved the character so much that I now plan to bring him back as the antagonist for an entire novel (or more?) as I continue my Thieftaker Chronicles.

So my questions for you today: First off, have you ever had this happen with one of your own characters? Is there a secondary character for whom you originally had limited plans who later became far more important to your work than you had expected? And second, can you think of other examples like Spike — characters in beloved franchises who seem to have grown far beyond the original intent of their creators?

David B. Coe
http://www.DavidBCoe.com
http://www.dbjackson-author.com

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  1. 1. Mindy Klasky

    Interesting post, David!

    I’ve heard other authors talk about this phenomenon before, but I really haven’t had it happen to me (and that makes me sad, and makes me feel a little … uninspired.) I suspect that I haven’t felt that *flash* of inspiration because I outline my work before I write – not all that extensively, but enough that I feel bound by that story. Perhaps I should open my mind to straying more from my plans… Hmm… (She typed, getting ready to outline a new novel this morning!)

    Thanks for making me think!

  2. 2. David B. Coe

    Thanks, Mindy. I outline, too — sometimes in great detail. But I always find that by chapter 10 or so, that original outline is no longer relevant to the project. So then I re-outline (new word?) the rest of the book. And by chapter 20, that new outline is also hopelessly out of date. So I outline the final chapters. Hence it’s easy to see why my characters still have so much influence over my plotting: apparently I don’t outline very well…

    I actually wrote a “Plotting versus Pantsing” post at the D.B. Jackson blog last week: http://www.dbjackson-author.com/blog

  3. 3. Wolf Lahti

    The protagonist of my first novel once stopped dead in her tracks and told me point blank, “I don’t want to go there.” She was right, of course; the direction I’d plotted was clichéd at best and did not suit the tone of the rest of the story. So I asked her, “Where *do* you want to go?”

    Her reply?

    “I’m not going to tell you.”

  4. 4. David B. Coe

    Boy, do I know the “I’m not going to tell you” response. I get that from my characters all the time. Thanks for the comment, Wolf. Valuable lesson there: Subconscious or not, sometimes our characters really do know better than we do.

  5. 5. Arachne Jericho

    Ahahahaha, this problem.

    I wrote my 2011 NaNoWriMo no-one-will-ever-see-it manuscript with an everywoman (everyspirit?) character, who made some quirky friends at Magical University.

    One quirky friend said, “I dare you, look at my backstory,” and now I’m writing a series of short stories all about it.

    Characters. They grow on you. And sometimes walk all over you.

  6. 6. David B. Coe

    >>They grow on you. And sometimes walk all over you.<<

    Indeed they do, Arachne. It can be distracting, it certainly creates more work for us. But I find that some of my most interesting work can be found in those stories I'd never intended to write. Best of luck!

  7. 7. Ana

    This has happened to me too. Now I am facing a similar problem indeed.

    My story has an antagonist, a husband that one of the main characters would eventually decide to leave. Initially, I didn’t want him to be so bad that it became obvious to the reader that leaving him was the best option, that the main character found it an easy thing to do. I didn’t want the reader, and the other characters, hating him from the very beginning.

    As a result of trying to make him more “human”, more vulnerable, I have almost made him a good guy and now I even feel sorry for him… I hope he begins to have some suspicious flashes so the girl (and I) get to leave him ;)

    Congratulations for your posts and please forgive my English, it is not my mother tongue :)

  8. 8. Elizabeth Moon

    Absolutely. Happens a lot–every book at least once, every group of books, more than once. Arvid–very minor character in my first book–showed up in the third, again briefly. But when I started the new group (20+ years after “completing” that story) there he was, in a role that has grown through the group. One king’s little brother…minor. Until…suddenly he wasn’t. Both Ky Vatta’s cousin Stella and her Aunt Grace were supposed to be minor characters mainly interesting because of their effect on her…but both stepped out of the sidelines and onto the main playing field. So did Rafe’s younger sister. (And actually, Rafe wasn’t planned–not until Stella recognized him in the security camera.) And the dog–amusing incident on space station causing main character embarrassment–only the dog turned into a character too.

    And as for always doing what I tell them? Bah, humbug. They have no respect for their creator.

  9. 9. Jeff Stover

    My characters are bland if I force them to be who I think they are. More often than not, I find my characters slapping me in the face, saying “That’s not what I’d say or do!”
    “What would you say?” I sit back and rub my aching cheek, composing myself.
    “Shut up, type, and stop trying to think so much. I’m the boss here.”
    And I type.

    I work for Story. It certainly doesn’t work for me.

  10. 10. David B. Coe

    Thanks for the comment, Elizabeth. I totally get the no-respect thing. Not only do my characters defy me, but I’m also the father of two teenage daughters….

    Jeff, I find the same thing. As soon as I impose my will on my characters, they become flat, boring, unconvincing. Thanks for the comment!

  11. 11. Jessica Meats

    With Child of the Hive, it was Rachel. I needed someone to show up purely to deliver some information to one of the other characters. I couldn’t call her “the woman” so she got a name. A little while later, I needed someone to do a similar role and figured I’d bring Rachel back. Then she started developing a personality, a crush on one of the main characters and a backstory. Before I knew what was happening, the second half of the book wouldn’t work without her. I didn’t mind because she made the plot much stronger with her presence.

    My current book gave me more of a problem. I realised about six chapters into the first draft that the character I thought was the main character wasn’t. A background character was determined he wanted to be in control of the plot. Which has basically led to me rewriting the entire first third of the book.

Author Information

David B. Coe

David B. Coe (http://www.DavidBCoe.com) is the Crawford award-winning author of the LonTobyn Chronicle, the Winds of the Forelands quintet, the Blood of the Southlands trilogy, and a number of short stories. Writing as D.B. Jackson (http://www.dbjackson-author.com), he is the author of the Thieftaker Chronicles, a blend of urban fantasy, mystery, and historical fiction. David is also part of the Magical Words group blog (http://magicalwords.net), and co-author of How To Write Magical Words: A Writer’s Companion. In 2010 he wrote the novelization of director Ridley Scott’s movie, Robin Hood. His books have been translated into more than a dozen languages. Visit site.

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