Friday, April 8, 2011

Cues from the Coach: Thwarting a Mutiny

Last month’s post on taming characters drew a great comment from Kate Kyle, who wrote, “I . . . thought this post was going to be about a situation I’ve heard . . . from some ‘pantsers’ - when a character takes over their book and how to ‘tame’ your characters so they don’t take over YOUR book.”

Characters often develop minds of their own, so we need to be careful lest they take our story to a place we do not want it to go. On the other hand, we don’t want to stuff them into a mold that reduces them to puppets on a string. Where’s the balance between these extremes?

It helps to understand the difference between character driven and plot driven stories. One driven by character focuses on emotions (often negative) and motivation. But when people take precedence over plot, they may be prone to mutinous uprisings—your story could become their story. A plot driven story is based on action; and the people, who may fade into overwhelming events, are less inclined to take over. Great books combine the best of both these forms and balance them to create a powerful story. Remember this: compelling plots populated with intriguing characters sell books.

How do you let your characters tell their story without taking over your story? Good planning is the key. Last month’s “Cues from the Coach” addressed detailed sketches to define and individualize characters. Now put those characters in a dynamic situation (plot), and you’re on your way to writing a great book in which characters and plot collaborate to create the story. Who directs that collaboration—that “movie” you are creating in the mind of your readers? You, the author. However, keep in mind that a good director allows for flexibility if a scene isn’t working as anticipated.

In my first novel, I planned to have the antagonist arrested and imprisoned at the end of the book. Keeping him true to his character, however, decreed a different outcome. His personality, attitude, actions, and determination to “steamroller” everyone who got in his way wouldn’t allow him to get off with a few years behind bars. He had to pay the ultimate price because that’s what he chose for himself. Did he change my story? No. Did he take it to a place I didn’t want it to go? No, but he could have. While I allowed him to be himself, I did not give him free rein to direct the show—even though he wanted that.

How do you handle characters who want to change your story?


Editor Linda Lane coaches beginning and experienced authors through rewrites of their manuscripts. By using their own works rather than a generic text as a basis for lessons, she individualizes each course to fit the needs of the writer and to enhance the development of a marketable book. Visit her at

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  1. Keeping in mind that I'm a planner, not a pantser, if I've got an attention-hogging character I'll let them go (within reason) in my first drafts. It's later, when I'm editing that it usually becomes fairly obvious that most of the scenes can leave or be severely cut down.

  2. I tend to be a planner, as well. I don't have trouble with characters staging a mutiny, but I struggle with weak, ill-defined characters. I had to completely change the personality and background of one of them to make him work in the story.

  3. If a character that I'd created had mutiny in mind, I'd know about it soon enough to make him/her walk the plank! No scuttlebutt in my book.

  4. I often tell my characters that they had better behave themselves or they won't survive the next big battle scene.

    Sometimes they even listen.

  5. @Anonymous: Keelhauling is my preferred method.

  6. Reeling him in just before drowning, only to toss his overboard again?

  7. What can I say? My characters get out of control? Say hello to my little friend. :-)

  8. In an early draft of my WIP my protagaonist really wanted to have sex with a co-worker. Okay, maybe I did, too: it was 11 pm on a NaNoWriMo day when I had the idea, and it kept me typing until midnight. It was fun. Some things, like sex, you just have to get out of your system, right?

    So I let her have her fun (and me, too). Then cut the scene and made her behave. But now unresolved, I discovered a wonderful tension between these characters to play off of...

  9. Thank you, everyone, for your lively contributions to this discussion. Character management is an issue we, as writers (and even editors), all face. Sharing our thoughts and techniques, both serious and humorous, benefits each one of us.

    Kathryn, I loved your comment. Give them their way, and then rein them in. Absolutely!



The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice.