Monday, June 28, 2010

Who's In Charge Here? (guest blog #3)

The Scene Stealer

Today's blog post is brought to you by Lisa M. Palin, who I met at my last law firm job. We were good friends and working in offices directly adjacent to each other for MONTHS before we each realized the other one also wanted to write... while sharing a taxi home from a firm holiday event, we realized we had both done NaNoWriMo that previous November. She writes primarily romance, but usually a genre-blend version of romance rather than straight category (including overtones of mystery, literary fiction and supernatural YA/"New Adult"). She blogs about solo hiking and camping at Her Side Of The Mountain, and can be found on Twitter: @joanarc4. She hopes to be around today to chat with you in the comments. Enjoy!

Let's face it. Characters can -- and frequently do -- take on a life of their own. This can be fun. That's when writing is like a wild ride, and as the writer, you hang on for dear life and enjoy the thrill. Sometimes, however, you're confronted with characters who simply. won’t. cooperate.

What then?

There are several different kinds of unruly characters, including:

  • The Scene Stealer: though she's not supposed to be the center of attention, she captivates everyone, including the other characters;
  • The Mule (i.e. stubborn as a): he refuses to do what you want him to do and you have to drag him kicking and screaming though the plot;
  • The Lazy A**: he'll do what you ask, but with the energy of pea soup; and
  • The Control Freak: she thinks she's directing the action and knows better than you.
Today, we'll talk about the Scene Stealer. The Scene Stealer is perhaps the most difficult to deal with, because, let's face it, she's so gosh darn cool.

About a year ago, I got an idea for a novel. I put fingers to keyboard and began to write. At first, it was going really well. The heroine was interesting, the hero enigmatic. I had a great villain ready-and-waiting in the wings. The action was exciting, the world interesting, and I thought to myself: Lisa, you have an incredible thing going here. Finally!

Then, she walked in. And ruined everything.

It happened so quickly, I barely had time to catch my breath before the story came to a screeching halt. Her name was Lily, and she glowed. Without my having thought too hard in advance about her -- she was a supporting character, a means to an end, after all -- she swept in and stole the scene. When it was time for her to go her own way, I found myself looking longingly after her, wanting to follow her and see what she would do next, rather than staying in the scene with my main characters.

As a test, I gave the first couple of chapters of the story to a frequent beta-reader of mine. He read the chapters, and said, “this is great. But that Lily, she’s something. What happens to her?”

Darn it.

Suddenly, my story was at an impasse. I couldn’t move forward because Lily was there, on the sidelines, being sexy and interesting and smug about her awesomeness.

So what do you do with the Scene Stealer? How do you keep him or her from derailing your really quite great story?
  • Make her less awesome. You could go back, force her into submission by making her less dynamic and interesting. I don’t like this, because it smacks of Harrison Bergeron. Why snuff out a shining light in order to even out the playing field? Feels like a waste.
  • Distract her. When I was a kid and raising hell, my dad would distract me by giving me something different and new to focus on. It can work on unruly characters as well. Take your Scene Stealer and put her in a different -- maybe uncomfortable, if you’re feeling spiteful -- situation. Write a few pages, let her get tangled up in some new mess with other characters. She’ll like the attention, and then perhaps be distracted long enough for you to make headway on your story while she’s otherwise occupied.
  • Give in. Temporarily, anyhow. You want to follow the Scene Stealer for a while? Do it. See what happens. At worst, you might end up with unusable but insightful character study. Maybe you’ll hit on a seed for a new story (to work on LATER, once you finish what you started). And who knows? Maybe you’ll end up with some usable nuggets that will make your story better. (Just make sure you don’t get too carried away and get back to the original story before too long.)
  • Make your other characters better. What makes the Scene Stealer so interesting and dynamic? That something is clearly missing from your other characters, or else she wouldn’t be so easily able to steal the spotlight. Instead of handicapping the Scene Stealer, look hard at how you might solve the problem by bringing your existing characters up to the level of the Scene Stealer. Give her some competition.
  • Smack her into submission. You can do it. You’re the writer. She may think she’s in control, but it’s an illusion. Ignore her long enough and she’ll settle down. If she doesn’t, then you’re probably looking for a distraction, and that’s an entirely different subject.
I brought Lily into submission, and saved my progress on the story, by giving in for a while (I gave Lily her own story, which I sketched out and set aside) and by making my hero and heroine more interesting. Turns out, they were just waiting for the opportunity to shine.

Have you ever encountered a Scene Stealer? What did you do to deal with this unruly character?


  1. Heh. Apparently Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings was a massive scene-stealer. Tolkien was trundling along with his Hobbit story and then this guy walks into the bar...

    Tolkien had no idea who he was or why he had just shown up in the story, so he had to invent Aragorn's story from scratch and find a way to work it in.

  2. Garrett GillespieJune 28, 2010 at 8:21 PM

    Great post. I guess I'm an enabler because I think one should give in to the scene stealer. Maybe she knows better than we do.

    I agree with you that the scene stealer can use up all the oxygen and that is not OK. I had to strengthen a competing main character when I realized things were getting unbalanced.

  3. jjdebenedictis, I love that. And I love Aragorn. Think what would have happened if Tolkein had forced him into submission! So scene stealers can sometimes strngthen our work. It's important to realize that.

    Garrett, I'm frankly a believer in giving your characters free reign and trusting your instincts, so I think I'm an enabler at heart, as well!

  4. Sometimes I don't actually find my MC until he or she comes and steals the scene/book. I'll just be writing lalala and then BOOM turns out I was writing about the wrong person.

    I am easily used and abused by my characters.

  5. My experience is that if you give a scene stealer their scene, they can take the story somewhere I'd never thought of. They surprise me and that means they surprise the reader.

    When on the third book in my 'Diamond Peak' - YA fantasy series - I had a character who did something I had never thought of, then one of my main characters did something I thought was really stupid.

    For a while I didn't want to allow it beacause i didn't know how to get out of it and bring it back to the story. Then one night the whole story unravelled and it was wonderful. I could never had thought of it myself. The character was actually smarter than me.

    You can read ch1 of the first book of the series, 'Lethal Inheritance,' at
    and on the home page, you can see where I'm up to in the process of getting published .

  6. Lisa, I remember you telling me about this! (and, if I'm not mistaken, I also got to read one of Lily's early scenes)

    I have never had the experience of the scene stealer, mostly because I have never truly worked on writing a novel; my prose work is almost entirely centered on short stories with only 1 or 2 characters. I'm hoping to try my hand at a novel in the coming month, so we'll see how it goes!