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