Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Panel Discussion - Characters Hijacking Your Story, Do You Allow It?

Our next panel discussion question generated a lot of interest among my fellow authors.  Many thanks to those who contributed today.  Here’s our question:

What do you do when a character takes you and/or your story to a place you don't want to go?

Camille LaGuire:
You have to go there, even if it's just in your head. You have to let it play out to see if it really is where the story needs to go or if it will derail the story.  It's going to change the character's lives irrevocably.  Does this take your story in a richer direction?  Does it open up opportunities?  Or does it shut off opportunities?  Does it rush the pacing?

If you determine that it is good for the story, you still don't have to "go there" in writing.  Just as you might take sex scenes off screen, you can do the same for other kinds of scenes that may throw off the tone of the story.  For instance, in the movie Gone With The Wind, we don't have to witness Rhett's mad grief at the death of Bonny Blue.  That could be raw enough to drive the audience out of the story.  So instead they have Mammy tell the story of it, and it's twice as affecting.

Dawn McCullough-White:
Typically when this happens I toy around with different scenarios for future scenes, posing the questions as to whether this will work in the plot, and what the butterfly effect might be.  Sometimes I let the character take me where he/she wants and then decide if I like it.  I remember writing a scene with two of my mains probably fourteen times because I deviated from the original idea and it never worked, I ended up going back to the first notes I'd written for the scene.  The other versions dramatically changed the direction the characters personalities would've gone and I didn't like it.

 Funny you should ask this question though, because I'm in that position right now.  I have one character going rogue on me, and I'm not sure if I'm going to let him or not.  He seems to think he should have a slightly happier ending then I'd planned.  We'll see I suppose.  I'm working on several different possibilities for three pivotal scenes in this character's future.  Sometimes I just have to write them down, and see if I can keep writing, if not it means that wasn't right for the story.

All in all my novels are character driven and although I do have a plot, I will deviate from that if the characters take the book in an interesting direction that stays within the basic framework of the story.

When I start writing a story I have an idea of what it will be about, but I have been doing this long enough to understand how rough that initial vision is. The tale, as I first grasp it, is a little like listening to a conversation going on on the other side of a wall. I will initially misunderstand what I’m hearing, and won’t be able to see through the wood very well at all…

There will be an extent to which I don’t understand what needs to happen before I’m in the middle of it, and the best thing that I can do then is pause and re-envision. If the story really should go in the new direction, then that needs to happen in a way that leads the story to be richer and deeper. We discover that there is a level at which the best sort of story-telling is not just making things up, but discovering what the truth actually is.

Those of you who have read The White Hairs will know that about halfway through the book my main character, Farshoul, goes through a dramatic change. I did not know when I sat down to write the story that this was going to happen, but when it did the event seemed to have all the pull of gravity behind it. It felt like I wasn’t choosing to put Farshoul through this, but merely being honest enough to admit that this happened to him.  But, am I talking about places I didn’t expect to go rather than didn’t want to go? The truth is that I’m not here to fight my story. I don’t sit down with a rigid outline and force the story to go where I initially imagined it would end up. I would always want my story to go where it truly needs to travel. If that’s contrary to my initial plans, I understand that I made those plans early on when I had an incomplete understanding of my story.

Laura Vosika:
Sooner or later, everyone experiences a character going his own way: responding to a question, or making a wise-crack, or reacting to a situation in a way that veers off the author's carefully outlined path.  My character Shawn likes to do this, but I expect it of him.  More recently, a much more humble, mild-mannered sort did it by offering one of my characters a cup of coffee.  Then he came back and offered her another.  Bit by bit, I found my story not only taking a round-about detour from my plans, but hopping on a flight to a different country altogether from my planned itinerary! 

My answer is to try a couple of times to tell the characters what I would like them to do or say, and if it doesn't work, I go back to their version of events.  So far, I have not regretted it, and I believe that's part of what allows a character to breathe and live.  I think somewhere, deep down, we know these people, and we know what they'd really do and say, and when we squelch that and force them back into our plans, we often flatten the life out of them.  Just like life, we often have to just go with what we're given, and I've usually ended up seeing where it takes the story.

Daniel Arenson:
The characters' wills come first.  The plot you the author envisioned
is lower priority.  Let your characters direct the flow!  If you created well-crafted, three-dimensional characters, they'll have motives, fears, goals, dreams.  They'll know what to do.  Your job as an author is to let them tell the story.  It's poor storytelling to develop a rigid plot and manhandle your characters down its path.  A great storyteller lets his characters make decisions based on their personalities, ambitions, and the challenges he or she tosses their way.
The characters' decisions then direct the flow of the story. Your characters want to go somewhere?  Let them.

So, fellow authors, what do you do when faced with this question? Tell us how you handle it in the comments section.


  1. You just have to let them highjack it, and see what happens. Great answers from your panel.

  2. Thanks Karen. I thought all the panelists were great too!

  3. Great discussion! And I really agreed with what everyone said. A character hijacking can actually be a fun thing, even if it is a little scary for the author. :-) Thanks, Deb!

  4. It's funny but when I first saw the question, I didn't think it was about plot hijacking. I read it as more about the emotional level of the story - when a character needs to take thing a beat too far. (Too silly, too sexy, too dark, too horrific.)

    That does overlap with a simple plot hijacking, but emotional tone may well leave the story line intact, but it changes the texture too much. As I said, above, in that case, you have to go there and explore the character's state, because it may be a sign of a whole deeper level of your story. But you may also have to temper it for the sake of the story.

  5. Sometimes you just have to let them. They sometimes give you or take you to a place you would of never gone if you had not just sat back and watched where they wondered. If it doesn't work you can always take it out but think of what you might miss if you didn't take the trip. Great discussion; I appreciate what the panel group said.


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