When the characters dictate the story


We’ve all heard authors complain that their characters sometimes go off at a tangent, in a direction vastly different to what they’d intended, developing themselves in new and unusual ways, growing more than planned until a minor character can become a major protagonist, and so on.  I’ve made similar comments myself, as a book goes off the rails of my carefully-scripted plot, and I’m left haring after its hero and/or villain, shouting, “Come back!  Who told you you could do that?  Stop, I say!”

Way back in the 1950’s and early 1960’s, there was a radio comedy program in Britain called “The Goon Show“.  I grew up listening to its reruns, cackling merrily at its zany humor (it was a contemporary of other BBC comedy shows like “Hancock’s Half Hour“, “Take It From Here“, etc., and would go on to inspire the creators of Monty Python).  John Lennon of The Beatles also cited the program as a major influence.

The Goon Show was famous for scripts that were totally, utterly logical within their own internal context, but completely irrational and ridiculous outside it.  Here, for example, is the dialog between Bluebottle and Eccles (while in a “ground-floor attic”) about time and its keeping.



The Goon Show devoted an entire episode to authors and their characters.  “Six Charlies in search of an author” was a parody of an earlier Italian play, “Six Characters in Search of an Author” by Luigi Pirandello.  It had the characters take over the plot of a novel, writing their own moves when they didn’t like those the author had designed for them, and changing the plot to suit themselves (including forcibly removing the author at one point when he objects).  It’s one of my favorite Goon Show episodes, particularly now that I’m an author myself.  Here it is for your enjoyment.  The musical interludes have been edited out of this recording.



So, you see, wayward characters are nothing new, and we’re not alone in decrying their mayhem!


  1. Hey. Yeah, the Main Characters are bad enough, but those minor characters that are supposed to walk in say one thing, and then walk away? Yeah, suddenly they want names, a few more sentences, and rather pointedly suggest they get a larger role in the next book, and how about writing their back story?

    I’ve got one of those with a whole series.

    1. Yeah, I started with one guy (who has way too much of a mind of his own; I have no control over him at all anymore), and pretty soon all these strays had populated an entire galaxy. It’s not my fault; they spawn when I’m not looking.

      What’s that filksong about the character who refuses to do whatever nonsense his author dictated, climbs a tree and won’t come down til he gets rewritten??

      1. “Railroad Bill” by Andy Breckman. A comedy parody of the folksong movement, much covered by filkers.

        Not to be confused with the actual folk song about a guy who will not work.

        1. That’s it! Thanks. (Version I heard was twisted around a bit, but recognizably the same root.) In fact…

          He also has another song we can relate to, “Self-Employment Made Harder By Difficult Boss”.

    2. I introduced a guy to bring back news of a disaster.

      Then, as he did not go away, I killed him. And there was no ghost.

      Nevertheless he haunted the story.

    3. I did, too – had a walk-on secondary character with a mildly-interesting back-story suggested at – and the perfidious wench insisted on two volumes… as well as one of her marital trials having repercussions in a third, set half a century later!

  2. Of course, if the author is writing a Horror Story, the characters have good reasons to “Not Go Into That Basement Or That Attic”. 😈

        1. All those tentacles probably give excellent backrubs; if you don’t mind the cold clammy touch, the smell of long dead things from under the ocean, going mad in the process, and probably being eaten after “tenderizing”.

  3. I do remember, from twenty-odd years ago, the glorious moment where one of the characters in This Shining Sea did something something, I reaklized it didn;t make sense, and then I realized it made complete sense to her. WHen youur characters are completely envisioned, tehy write themselves.

  4. Oh yes, so true. Joschka von Hohen-Drachenburg was supposed to be a walk on, walk off. Little did I know he’d force me to ret-con the entire dang series!

    And don’t get me started about Ivan the Purrable…

  5. I’m looking through my first story, and I’m realizing that I’ve started to breed plot bunnies.

    Like what happened when Adelaide and Kiokyo went to LA (tl;dr version-lesbian night on the town, excitement, naughty shopping, yakuza, having to kill a yuki-onna that was eating people…). There’s a novella-length short story in here.

    Or the back stories of this one character that we aren’t going to meet for another five books… (she’s one of the members of the NKVD Рабкрин магические воины-дамы during the Great Patriotic War).

    And, of course, we cannot forget what happened when Quu is let out with any amount of money…

  6. Do you suppose this is the problem God runs into with us? That whole dangerous free will stuff.

    The more real a character you create, the better chance they turn on us and say “I wouldn’t do that.” It is the difference between a cardboard character that only has the appearance of reality and a three dimensional one who has depth, and reality.

Comments are closed.