How to handle your characters running away
There’s a moment — and every writer knows it well — where the characters step off the kerb and start walking for themselves.
No matter how tightly the story is plotted, how rigidly the character’s actions and appearance and thoughts are scripted, at some point they start doing stuff they aren’t supposed to. Instead of walking to the shop to get the eggs to bake the cake for the dinner party where the big plot twist will be revealed, they make a turn and run off to the top of the hill, sit down and look out on the boring community, the stagnant existence, the arid future.
A white convertible passes by and they jump in, heading off down Route 66 for a passionate fling with a sultry stranger.
The poor writer, faced with a revolt by their own creation, has to decide.
- Hoy, get back on track, you; I’ve got a deadline to meet! or
- Well, I wonder where this is going; let’s just follow for a while.
Go with the second. Give those dudes their head. Like water running downhill free and natural, the characters jump out of their concrete channel, wave their arms in the air, and romp through the story. It sparkles and comes alive.
Of course, sometimes it sparkles a little too much and heads off in directions that are wildly inappropriate. That’s okay. They’ve had their fun. They can come back home and do their chores and be good little characters.
But what does it really mean?
My question, Dear Writer, is this: What just happened? What’s going on in your head? Just how much in control of your thoughts are you really?
We’ve all got hidden depths. We must. When we read some fabulous story of adventure and excitement, or a poem stabs us in the heart, or a movie makes us look at the world in a different way, those things work because they touch something inside that is exactly the same. We recognise beauty in a deep and natural way because we have beauty inside. We don’t need to study the colours and composition of a sunset to decide if it’s beautiful or not. We know at a glance.
We recognise the majesty of a castle, the happiness of a child, the courage of a fireman because they resonate with those exact same qualities inside us.
Don’t cover them up. Don’t push them away. Just because they arise naturally without any hard thinking work going on doesn’t mean they aren’t real. They can and they will transform your life in exactly the same way as your characters step away from the canned narrative you have plotted out for them.
Don’t be stale.
Be you! Listen to those inner voices, those inner qualities. They are as much a part of your being as any boring old, carefully-plotted, logical rational role-player thoughts you write down on your story outline. Or your life outline.
Have fun, but let reason rule
While whatever bubbles up out of your subconscious may be grounded on your basic and hopefully best values, there’s also your mind working away at entertaining and distracting you from your purpose. Those very things that come running into your head, fun of life and colour and excitement, they aren’t infallible. That voice of commentary chattering away is not necessarily working hard on your best interests. To be frank, sometimes it comes up with some real nonsense.
My beef with Don Trump is that he believes his thoughts. Yes, that’s right. He treats his mental mumblings as if they are endowed with some universal truth. He reveres them and wants to share what he regards as wisdom. But they don’t need to be blurted directly out to the world.
For a man who prides himself on making great deals, he is shooting himself in the foot with every tweet. He lets others see what he is thinking. Don Trump reveals his underlying character, his hopes and fears, his innermost secrets, with every drip into the Twitter bucket. If he were playing poker, he’d lose every game.
So when those characters of yours go scampering off into the wide world, sure, they can have the most amazing adventures and it’s a lot of fun and emotion, but run whatever qualities of reason and balance and measure you possess over them before committing their rambles and gambols to posterity.
There will be gold to mine from these excursions. Let your mind go loose, consider the possibilities. Maybe there’s a way to hook up that Route 66 adventure with some other story arc. Maybe a different character goes romping off and their frolics would be more appropriate and fit in better.
Like a jigsaw coming together, the pieces will fall into their natural place. You can almost hear them click.
And there will be dead ends, pieces that don’t work. Contemplate them, but if they don’t fit into any pattern, discard them, or set them aside for another day.
The best part
These things are free — in both senses — and they are yours. You didn’t swipe them off the movie screen or out of that book you read last week. If you want something that has your fingerprints, your voice, your soul, then what better material than something that comes bubbling up from within?
You may pick and choose from these gifts. Push them into shape, set aside the duds, make whatever you have into your own personal story. Polish it up, sell it to the world.
And if it wins a few hearts, do it again.