Quit Messing With My Plot!: The Problem of Character Creep

Alma T. C. Boykin

No, not creepy characters, but characters who 1) won’t stay the way you originally planned, 2) won’t stay in the proper role, or 3) insist on expanding the story. Also known as “this was supposed to be a short story, not a 40K word novella!” Or worse.

I sort of envy writers who can outline a book, write the outline, and not have characters say, “Um, yeah, I’m not that stupid.” Or “I’m not what you think I am and I’m going to become a major character who requires completely changing the protagonist’s back-story. Thpppppth.” And a few were supposed to be the protagonist, and bowed out for reasons unspecified (although those are less common.)

So, what are your options when a character threatens to derail a story? Roughly: roll with it, bump the character to a different story [also known as appeasement], drop the character, or see what can be shifted to reach a compromise.

Roll with it seems to be what ends up happening with me. I’ve had two male characters promote themselves, one to a love interest, one to a step-father. In the first case, the character shifted roles very, very early in the series, almost before it was a series, so I could ret-con him into the story and foreshadow developments much better. In the long run, that worked very well and deepend the story in ways that made the series much stronger. In the second case, it allowed me to create the Hunters and add a lot of depth to the story world. I trusted my hind-brain (aka Muse) and things worked. It would have been nice if Muse had warned me earlier about Arthur and the Hunters, so I could have ret-conned them into the earlier books, but it might be just as well in this case that they gradually appear over time. For Lelia to latch onto Arthur earlier, before she and he were both emotionally ready to accept the relationship, might well have caused more pain for both of them. That’s something apparent now, but not at the time Arthur became more than just a recurring major-minor character.

Which leads us to option two: promise the character his/her/its own story and ease them back into their proper role in the original work. Jens Saxklar in the second Merchant story fits that. There’s a lot about him, even in that short story, that’s different from the Merchant-world standard. He wanted more space. I gave him that in the book about the stone cutters. He’s still a minor character, but readers learn why he’s considered a bit “off” by the others. It also introduced more about the goddess Valdher, who is a major driving force in a later book. Jens is who he is, and the character works best as an intriguing and important minor figure. Pam Uphoff introduced me to the technique of “appease/bribe the character” and it sometimes works. But not always. See the paragraph above.

I’ve dropped characters, but that’s rare. In those cases, it turned out that a different kind of person was needed in the role. I saved the notes I’d made already, and once found a place for someone like that in a different story. Other times, I realized that either I wasn’t ready to write that kind of story, or that I didn’t need to let my mind “go there.” This is very, very rare, at least for me.

Compromise works on occasion. I’d planned to bump off a character who was a reporter, and a very good one. He was sneaky, smart, could keep his muzzle shut, and had a very, very strong survival instinct. I’d planned to use him as a PoV character only to a certain point, then bump him off in a disaster. He did the Azdhagi version of giving me a disgusted look and saying, “Are you kidding me? I’m getting the heck out of town before trouble hits, since I can see it coming. You idiot. I didn’t last this long by ignoring warnings.” And so he bailed out, and lasted for the entire book.

This might not be a problem for you. Or you may have different coping strategies for character creep. If so, what are they?

Image: Author photo of statue of Jan Zizka, leader of the second phase of the Hussite Rebellion. He went from minor noble to feared war leader. Tabor, Czechia, June 2019.

25 thoughts on “Quit Messing With My Plot!: The Problem of Character Creep

  1. A love interest shows up and tells me that the heroine’s original love interest isn’t even a rival.

    Fortunately at that point it was still loose enough that the original could be collapsed with a second character.

    It was only when writing it that the second character split in two, each having a separate story

    1. *Nods in recognition.* You throw the perfect wife at him over and over . . . and get total indifference. Or she just doesn’t like him. Whatever. It’s that one over *there* that catches his eye. Or hers. Female characters do it to me nearly as often.

    2. Fortunately, all the characters who needed to be hived off were my having to pare down the epilogue. At most that requires a wise woman making cryptic remarks in the book.

  2. The problem with bribing a character is that they always alter the deal. I am currently back 20 years in story time giving this jerk his interesting backstory. Yeah. 60K already and he’s telling me that he isn’t in place yet for his brief walk on, and will clearly need a sequel . . .

  3. And here I thought I wasn’t a Real Writer™ because my characters behave themselves (even the one I had to rewrite to make him obnoxiously stupid – not a peep out of him). I hadn’t realized that this might be enviable.

    1. Same. I have trouble with sometimes misunderstanding the motives of my characters, for probably the same reasons that make me less than a model of tact and sensitivity IRL, but usually, once I understand why they’re doing what I sense they ought to be doing, they roll along with the overall plot direction with a minimum of fuss.

      Occasionally, I’ve envied the kind of writer whose characters rarely leave you in any doubt of what they are going to do at any given moment and why, but the writers here make a good case for why it’s not always ideal.

    2. You’re in good company. Vladimir Nabokov famously said his characters were galley slaves who did what they were told.

  4. Mostly, I get protagonists who don’t want to protag.

    There’s a reason that only callow youths set off on the Hero’s Journey.
    Everyone else knows better.

    1. Those ladies and gentlemen generally don’t get past the initial brainstorming phase for me. Pretty much every book I’ve published has someone in a difficult situation, not necessarily of their own making, driving them forward.

    2. That’s why the traditional Hero’s Journey always starts with a Refusing the Call, at least once.

      I think it was Mary Catelli who mentioned we have to be careful of characters with negative motivations.

      What I’m finding is one way to deal with that is figure out what the character does want and put it on the other side of the dragon. Especially if they don’t want to deal with the dragon.

  5. I still haven’t figured out how to intentionally write a series: I just can’t get rid of a character. Twitch was a minor bit character in Going Ballistic, who just showed up on the balcony in the supposed-to-be-a-short-story where I was doing a take on Cinderella, and promptly let me know that he was chasing the girl. And so much for a short story, because then we had an entire book in which he had an existential crisis of having finally caught the perfect girl, how do you keep her?

    …Afterwards, I said “Enough of this, I’m writing a shopping expedition with so much pink and nothing going wrong!”, just to twit my friends. Guess who shows up outside a dressing room in the bored-husband chairs? Twitch, having dragged AJ along. The explosions were kind of inevitable after that. (And Jenna prefers teal to pink, so I’m 0 for 2 on my original intent there.)

    And we’re not even going to talk about Crane. *sinal salute* Most especially because I’m somewhat afraid after my husband pointed out that I’m doing snapshots of the arc of a cold war between two countries, and I can see that if Crane gets his own book, it’s going to take the entire war to get there.

    What happens if I get 12, or worse, 20 books in, and then when I finally wrap it up, my readers figure out I still have no idea how to deliberately start a series? I guess I’ll just have to write a bunch of one-offs, and see if some other character starts creeping…

    1. Uh . . . not only do they not notice, they keep begging for more, even when you think you’ve reached the end. I mean, you’re just the writer, what do you know?

      1. A Diabolical Bargain was my first novel. I’d tried and failed before. It disguised itself as a novelette, and then a novella, and finally admitted it was a novel, and its big trick was letting me get to the end and announcing Nick was not happy yet. TWICE.

        (And then I had to go back and put in all the stuff I had left out in a desperate attempt to keep it short.)

    2. Author: This is a one-off short story.
      Readers: New series! Wheeee!
      Author: No, come back with that— Wait! I don’t— Aw nuts. *Slinks off to write next book in Not-A-Series*

  6. So far when characters surprise me or otherwise hijack the plot bus, it has been because I’m missing something.

    What I have found is I absolutely need to understand what that is before I can finish the story. One of the fanfic things came to a screeching halt because one of the main antagonists was behaving in weird erratic ways that made no sense. Took me a year before I started to figure out why. Now that I get it, their character arc is both fire and something I can scrub the serial numbers off of, but I couldn’t even start that until I understood why they weren’t doing what I expected.

    Also had one character simply peace out. I was expecting them to have a major role, and they just shut up and walked off set. At this point, I’m figuring their role in-camera wasn’t actually needed. But we’ll see.

  7. Fortunately, most of my characters seem willing to fight with me at the outline stage. I write up what I think should happen, pass the script around, and say, “Everyone okay with this?”

    “Excuse me, this description of Chapter 2 where I go to the mortal and blab all of my organizations deepest secrets, including the ones so deep we even lie to ourselves about them? That’s hilarious, I love a good joke, but can I see the real Chapter 2?”

    “Er, but he needs that information….”

    “That’s nice. I’m not telling it to him. Now can we get back to finding the real Chapter 2?”

    So Chapter 2 gets revised, and then Chapters 3, 4, and 5 have to be modified to show where the hero actually got his information, and then I need to go back and tweak Chapter 1 a bit, but eventually we get an outline everyone agrees on.

    That’s not to say that some of the characters might not say, “Oooh, shiny!” and get a bit distracted along the way, but, in general, I can usually get them to the end of the planned novel.

    1. Very useful. I’ve had stories sprout substantial subplots in writing, but the main plot they can thrash out in outline.

  8. I had a nice, neat, “hero is a middle-aged family man” story started. Then, just as he was being reluctantly being dragged away from his family, his eldest daughter stepped up with a villain and a more urgent and pressing problem of her own. Wait!! He’s in a middle of a long boring journey to get to where he is going to be needed. This was supposed to be HIS story!

  9. I came up with a throwaway character to command the enemy fleets. But then I realised the story would be so much more interesting if he wasn’t a standard “only by the book” enemy officer (though he’s surrounded by them, and is hamstrung by the enemy tactical manual), and ended up giving him an interesting backstory to justify his tactical nous. He ended up being so interesting to write that I changed his ending – rather than having him thrown out on his ear at the end of Part 1, he survives the court martial with a demotion and continues being the primary enemy viewpoint for Part 2.

  10. *snicker* I had one character in the Trilogy, who was originally cast as the conventional, boring, set-in-stone traditional Germanic male, a foil for the hero.
    Who – and this will not be a surprise to the other authors on this thread – turned out to be a quirky, engaging, stubborn and self-directed personality.
    Hansi Richter, the 19th century cattle baron.
    Well, that was a bit of surprise to me, how Hansi developed.

    1. Grumble Grumble

      You just had to Make Me Want to read that Trilogy!

      Oh, for what it is worth, KoboBooks now has the Kobo Plus program similar to Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited program.

      I’m trying it out with Celia’s Trilogy. 😉

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