When Your Characters Behave Unexpectedly

July 22nd, 2010 • Kate

surpriseweddingSome friends and I were playing an RPG tonight (role-playing game, for those of you that grab your geek creds from elsewhere), and when the GM left the room for a few minutes, the other players and I came up with a brilliant plan to tie up the approximately 5 various different plot lines that had been building to a conclusion for the last few sessions. Not only did our plan succeed admirably, but we managed a true Shakespearean-style ending to a campaign that began with a Bardic theme that was otherwise mostly ignored.

As we finished, I turned to Rexroth and boasted, “I totally have my blog post for the day!” That is — when characters completely blindside their creators.

Now, you may be an outliner of your novels, or a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of writer, but chances are you have some sort of idea of what your characters are going to do. And most creations of your own mind don’t sit around a table in your basement plotting behind their author’s back for a completely different ending than you intend.

Then again, sometimes it SEEMS like they do.

So what do you do? Do you wrestle them back into place, poke them back into their boxes and say, “No, do THIS!” Or do you let them run, and see what happens? If you’re an author like our GM, our character-wrassler, you let them run, and find yourself with a totally appropriate As You Like It-esque ending.

Have you had a situation like this happen to you? Tell me about it!

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31 Responses to “When Your Characters Behave Unexpectedly”

  1. Trish Says:

    Oh, Travis has misbehaved from the very beginning. I expected him to be a sullen young man, but he turned on the charm immediately and I've been left trying to deal with it. 😀

  2. John Poindexter Says:

    Sadie threw me a curve when at the very end of the novel, she came out and said she was pregnant. I really didn't see it coming, but the she did it was grand.

  3. Liz Czukas Says:

    My characters do this to me from time to time. The only way I've ever found of "fixing" their misbehavior is to delete pages upon pages of material. To go back to the last point that I had control. In general, being a fan of grooviness and cookies, I prefer to let them take charge for a bit while I go have a snack. Much less stressful. Besides, you never know when they're going to come up with something hilarious. I once had a character reveal that she used to be on a synchronized swimming team! Imagine how much entertainment I would have lost if I'd tried to stop that from happening?

    Thanks for the entertainment and for raising my GQ (geek quotient) for the evening!

    – Liz

  4. Bethany Says:

    This just happened to me. Again. And I love it. The characters were not meant to have any romantic tension – twas not the reason for their constant proximity – and then they started doing things that made it quite difficult to deny. I remember saying aloud, "What are you guys DOING?" Of course, she hasn't had any real human interaction in several years and he just nearly died.

    What I love about this is that when you know your characters motivations, sometimes you have to let them show you how they would respond. Otherwise, I might find myself writing scenes that aren't really believable because they're not honest.

  5. Meghan Says:

    This happens to me sometimes too. I like to let my characters take control sometimes – it's easier than suppressing them, and they are usually right! Recently two of my characters started up a whole new subplot because they insisted on exchanging a look that clearly meant they had been talking about the main character behind her back.

  6. Noelle Pierce Says:

    My characters have done this to me. Repeatedly. In one instance, I let him go, rather than fight him on it (like Trish's example, I wanted my hero to be cynical and he turned out to be charming…damn him). In another, I hit a writing wall because she refused to decide whether she was going to reconcile with her sister. Given the character's pride in her fashionable attire and position in Society, I threatened to write her an out-of-date wardrobe and glasses if she didn't make up her mind. Within 30 minutes, I was writing again. Oh, and another character was horny while I was trying to finish NaNoWriMo, so he managed to get a lot of sex scenes that I'm not happy with. Those need serious editing, and possible deletion.

    For the most part, though, I really love where they go with it and it furthers the story. I may think I have them fleshed out, but I don't really know them until they start doing things on their own. It's one thing about writing I absolutely love.

  7. Jennifer Says:

    Two of my main characters are completely different from how I first imagined them. One has gone through a huge transformation and plays a more prominent role than she did to start with. I love developing my characters. It is like shaping your fake baby's life.

  8. Jami Gold Says:

    Yep, this happens to me. All. The. Time. I love it when it happens though, because my characters are much funnier and more creative than I am. I'd never be able to come up with half of the things they do.

    Of course, it caused problem when a character refused to tell me what happened in an embarrassing scene. I finally had to ask a different character that had witnessed it for the details. LOL! Yes, writers are insane and I embrace the insanity.

    And now I'm wondering what game you were playing. I wish I still had time for that.

  9. Amy L. Sonnichsen Says:

    This happened to me with my last book and I think it ruined a perfectly good book, to be honest. The ending turned the whole thing into suspense when up to that point it had been character-driven. I should have kept better control. I think it's fine to let characters have their own way sometimes, but always remember who has the final say and don't let them control you!


  10. Megan Says:

    The first time that happened to me, I had set up MC to go into the kitchen and yell at her housemate.

    Instead, the housemate said sorry and MC was accepting and they were besties before I knew what was happening!

    It was fun and exciting and I'm so glad it happened!

    It was sort of annoying too as I had to go back and amend all the rest of the scenes that relied on them being angry at each other, but it was exciting!

  11. Amy Says:

    I think we spoke about this? But my manuscript out on sub now, the first boy she kisses? She was NOT supposed to kiss. THEY JUST HAD WEIRD UNSTOPPABLE CHEMISTRY. I couldn't stop them.

  12. Jade Says:

    This happens to me a lot. The story I'm currently editing was meant to be a light-humoured book but it was soon clear that story was actually kind of dark. It surprised me because I'd never really written anything dark before but I went with it. It turned out to be the story I loved the most. Although, after eight straight hours of editing today, I'm not sure love is the most appropriate word.

  13. celsie Says:

    The last novel I wrote ended up being completely rewritten due to characters disagreeing with the plot. I had a set tone and direction for the novel, and about 3/4 into the novel, I was informed I was wrong.

    Though I really shouldn't have been surprised. In the first chapter, a minor character became the protagonist, which led to some earlier outline changes.

    I'm waiting for the character inspired changes in the latest work in progress. So far, no divas stealing the spotlight or making up their own lines on stage. Maybe in a few more pages…

  14. Andrea K Host Says:

    I set up the social structure of an entire fantasy world to allow a particular marriage to occur at the end of the novel.

    And the characters refused to go through with it.

    I let them get away with it, but kept the social structure, since I'd found it very interesting thinking through implications and consequences.

  15. Ann Finkelstein Says:

    Once my characters start cracking jokes on their own, they tend to take charge. Most of the time, I go along and see where we end up. Sometimes a third option is necessary because neither the original plan nor the new direction is working.

  16. Dan Says:

    I'm of the school of thought that a story is a thing you build, not a thing you discover. When you write, you should know where you start, where you are going, and, at least roughly, how you are going to get there. This approach helps you keep the plot tight and it keeps the characters consistent and logical in their behavior.

    Characters don't have autonomy, and I think it's a mistake to treat them like they do. They need to act in realistic and believable ways, and their actions need to be logical and supported by understandable motivations. But they're still just pieces the author moves around. They act in service of your objective, not the other way around.

    Plot needs to seem to emerge from the characters, but that's really a writer's trick. The characters' arcs should be carefully planned to develop with the narrative and its themes. If the character isn't who you expected him to be when you hit an important plot point, then the actions you need him to make to move the story forward might not make sense. And if you're not sure who your characters are when you start writing, it's very hard to outline a plot with that seems character-driven.

  17. Eric Stallsworth Says:

    First off, super geek points for being an RPG-er. That's awesome. To answer the question however, I'm very much a pantster. I didn't completely realize just how much control my characters have over me until I was working on a story just a little while ago. I was writing the story, and all of a sudden the MC killed his mother. Accidently, but still. It took me by surprise, so much so that I had to pause to wonder if I was writing the right words. But it worked well so I decided to leave it. I'm no longer surprised when my characters take the wheel, and I just let 'em do it. It's not my story after all – it's theirs.

  18. Carrie Harris Says:

    That happens to me sometimes. But I have a go-to solution for RPG problems–I summon Huizilopochtli (the Aztec god of war), and everybody dies. Problem solved.

    I've tried this in books, but it doesn't really make for a satisfying ending.

  19. Karen Says:

    I'm a fly by the seat of my pants sort of writer and this very thing just happened to me with one of my wips. As I was writing, my characters were like, "we can't do what you want us to do because we aren't really alive. Shhhh don't tell anyone because we don't even really know yet." I thought–for about a half a second–about making them do as I'd told them, but wouldn't you know, my characters came up with a much better story that I had-lol.

  20. Erin Danehy Says:

    Sounds like you had an awesome evening!

    It's always the secondary characters who surprise me. Or, at least, I mentally term them 'secondary characters' until they prove they aren't secondary at all, thank you very much. Maybe I shouldn't be so surprised?

    I love reading about everyone's creative process!

  21. Lyn Miller-Lachmann Says:

    I had to rewrite because the characters didn't like the ending. I had this ending in mind–it was the predictable ending, it flowed well–but when I reread it, it felt like I'd forced my characters into this logical direction. So I put the manuscript aside for a year, said to my main character, "If you want your boyfriend to survive, *you* figure out a way to make it happen." I ended up with a much more active main character by doing this, too.

  22. Rexroth Says:

    You never, ever, force them back into the intended route.

    If you do, they will stop talking to you.

    I've done this. It's a real thing. It sucks.

  23. Denise Wolf Says:

    It is when the magic happens for me. I love it when my characters take over. I provide the framework and they take me places I never could have predicted.

  24. Olivia Says:

    Don't force them back.

    I had outlined a plot. It sucked. Someone in my writing club gave me an alternate plot (which did NOT suck). When I went back editing to change it, it turned out that all of the foreshadowing for the alternate route was ALREADY THERE.

  25. brandi Says:

    It happens to me a lot. Most of the time I go with it, because it's my subconsious' way of telling me what I've got planned is not working.

    For example, I was working on a fantasy/romance novel, and the hero killed the heroine in the second chapter, even though he was supposed to let her escape. I was going to force him to go along with my plans, but after thinking about it, I decided to scrap the story.

    The culture I'd created along with the personality of the hero meant that he would never have let the heroine live. It just didn't work.

    When my characters try to tell me something, I listen. It usually ends up saving me a lot of grief in revisions.

  26. Erika Marks Says:

    I am continually intrigued/thrilled/frustrated/all of the above by the inevitable changing of character personalities and motivations through drafts. Like any pulled thread, one character change seems to affect so many others around him/her. I think we all know when things feel right for our characters or not. What's tough is after a character announces a changed mind, it can be hard, impossible really, to bring them back to where they were, even if you decide not to let them "have their way."

  27. Jami Gold Says:

    Olivia said: When I went back editing to change it, it turned out that all of the foreshadowing for the alternate route was ALREADY THERE.

    Yes! I've decided that I need to trust my subconscious/muse because they have a plan and it just seems like they don't because they reveal only bits and pieces at a time. Then when I finally catch up, I get this sarcastic tone from my muse: "It took you long enough…" LOL!

  28. Rissa Watkins Says:

    Oh yeah, my characters never behave. The 2 MCs were supposed to be more like brother and sister. They kept acting up and then had a scene that was NOT how brothers and sisters act.

    So I let them get there way and everyone is happy.

  29. Molly Says:

    I've found that when my characters don't listen to my outline, my work is better because of it. My plot may take a different direction, but the story often flows easier, and I enjoy the writing!

  30. Jill Elizabeth Says:

    One of my characters unexpectedly came out of the closet to me.

    Needless to say that required making changes to at least one of the plotlines!

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