Saturday, March 12, 2011

Unplanned Characters

Writers, what do you do with an unplanned character who decides he wants a bigger role in your novel?

I'm only in chapter 2 of my work-in-progress, and I've already got one of those. This happens a lot to me, probably to many fiction writers, so I'm not surprised. Many times this situation has worked out well for the unplanned character (and me!). In fact, every one of my novels has at least one major or very strong minor character who started out as a one-page toss-away, but after they'd served their purpose, they came back with big ideas of sticking around. Other times a persistent toss-away character's efforts aren't rewarded with a significant, long-term presence, but they still end up with a bigger purpose.

Then there are the ones I end up resenting. Maybe they frustrate the crap out of me by popping up all the time without ever finding a purpose in the story, and I have to delete every trace of them and fill in the holes they left behind. One character I resent but still love stayed in the novel--a fairly significantly role for the section she was in--but she caused extra work because I had to continually cut back her character development. Still, she kept popping up, demanding more examination. So I killed her. What did she do? Half a novel later, here she came again, a "cold spirit" with a warning for the main characters, and she was just as relentlessly insistent to be heard by them as she'd been with me.

Once I got so caught up in an unplanned character, he derailed the entire novel. I had to slash something like 45,000 words out of the middle, because I couldn't steer it back to where it needed to go. I'd all but forgotten my main character in favor of developing this unplanned one. That ain't good. If you've read my published novel Struck, remember Manuel? That's the troublesome character. I do get some satisfaction by readers who tell me how much they enjoyed his character.

With several completed novels under my belt, I've come to realize a few tendencies. The characters who pop up and take over to the extent I end up cutting them back--or out--are my in-between or gray characters, those who are neither good nor bad. I'm not surprised. Those are definitely my favorite types to develop. I'm weird that way, but I find them interesting and can't help exploring their motivations. The unplanned characters who end up with a huge role in the novel that I don't ultimately have to cut back are generally admirable characters.

I've also come to realize I'm really tough on unplanned characters, whether they're admirable or some shade of gray. My paranormal novels all have big stakes, so the characters have big obstacles, and I make them earn any resolution. But I'm especially hard on the walk-ons. Well, most of them. I can think of one who came out pretty good, but he reminded me a little bit of myself, so I guess I cut him some slack. Being like me is torture enough. 

Anyway, this unplanned character in chapter 2 of the w-i-p is a third grade kid with a swagger and a fading black eye. He really wants in. I'm thinking he doesn't know what he's in for, and he's just a kid. The last kid who tried this got put through physical and psychological hell by yours truly. He was a great guy, but sheesh, even I felt a little sorry for him at times. That novel covered a time frame that allowed me to wait until he was a man before I pulled out the big guns. My current novel won't cover that many years. This kid's black eye will be gone at the end, but he'll still be a kid. If he survives. 

Well, for now, the kid stays. If for no other reason, it's because I'm curious. Now that I'm more self aware of my treatment of unplanned characters, what will I do? Words will tell.


  1. I'm glad the kid stays. I have a feeling he'll turn out to be a fascinating character. All your characters are, Keith. That's why I love your books so much. Love the look of your blog too. Very stylish and in sync with what you write.

  2. Thanks, Joylene! I do love my characterization, don't I? I've tweaked around with my blog design lately. I'm glad you like it.

    Did I mention it was fun hearing your interview the other day? I sat up straighter than usual when I heard "my very good friend, Keith Pyeatt." *smile*

  3. I am experiencing this with three of my "minor" characters are definitely connected to the protagonist but as my story progresses, so does their presence.

  4. Hey Jonz. Yeah, those minor characters can be relentless and insidious, can't they? They usually end up working out for me, so yay relentless minor characters. Hope you experience the same.