What to Do When Characters Go Rogue
You create a strong, coherent character that has enough interest for you to include them in your story. And then, they do more. They take action and run with the story. They barge into scenes. They interrupt dialogue. As a result, the characters and the storyline get bumped.
Last week I talked about letting characters take action when your story seems squeezed into a structure. But characters can take the reins and gallop away with the story, especially if they are secondary characters.
The Good Problem
A rogue character is a sign of your ability to create a strong character, so don’t be discouraged. Strong characters are a good problem. A rogue character is a sign of your character development success.
Strong characters have a well-defined personality and a good set of goals, motivations, and passions. They have the coherence and individuality that make them compelling to you and your reader. You understand the character and can plan what they are going to do. You understand what they will need and how they will react in certain situations. You understand what they want and what they will do to achieve their goal.
Three Reasons Characters Go Rogue
One main reason characters bump the storyline is strong goals and strong motivations. When you understand your character’s motivation to reach a goal, they will act to reach that goal through strong motivations. As you write, the motivations are first in your mind. You follow those motivations and the character acts (including dialogue) in ways prompted by the motivation but not according to your storyline.
The second reason character’s take over the story, is they are more strongly defined than the protagonist. This can happen if the protagonist, or another character, is there to fill a plot role, but is not heavily developed. The story is ruled by the plot, and the character’s essence and motivations are not strong. Basically, the stronger characters push the weaker ones aside. Beginning mystery writers may find this happening when they have a detective to solve the mystery, but have developed a deep, three-dimensional sleuth.
The third reason character’s take charge is that the plot is weak. As a writer, you don’t know where the story is going, and neither do your characters. If you don’t have a strong enough plotline, the strong character will take over to lead the story in their direction. This rogue action usually appears in the first draft, especially for pantsers. Your interest goes with the characters and strays from the storyline.
Steps to Align Your Characters and Story
When you feel a character is taking over, the first step is to stop writing.
Then, evaluate why the character is bumping your storyline. Is it a weak plot? Your protagonist isn’t up to snuff as a character?
Character Development Revamp
Go back to your character development and work on your main characters. Give them strong story goals that will drive them through the story. Examine their deep motivations. For example, not just catch the killer in a mystery, but how catching the killer fits with their values and life goals.
Be sure to examine the rogue character’s background as well. They may be taking over because you’re trying to figure out their motivations on the fly because you didn’t know enough about them as you were writing.
Sharpen their goals, motivations and passions. Make sure you understand the character—what makes them tick and what’s driving them. Make sure the goal is clear and specific, but quite hard to get. And that their desire for it is very strong. That way you’ll make them more interesting, and they can take their fair share of the storyline.
Beef Up the Storyline
If what your main character is doing seems a bit dull, spice it up. Add more conflict. Make sure the stakes get higher as the story progresses. Brainstorm some clever twists. Then work them into your protagonist’s goals, motivation, and passion.
A strong storyline gives your main characters things to do. It won’t be so easy for another character to derail the story.
Accommodate the Rogue Character
If your running wild character is strong, give them a subplot. Of course, it needs to align with the main storyline, but weave their subplot into the main story. Make sure the plotline and character arc of the subplot are strong, deserving a place in your main story.
The Future Story
Pull back the reins on the rogue character in this story and save all the dimensions, goals, and motivations for another story featuring this character as the protagonist. You’ll have ample opportunity to work with this character.
The Hard Call Rewrite
In this case, you make the rogue character the main protagonist and build the story around their goals and motivations. This is a hard call because essentially you’ll be creating a new story. The plotline will change around the new protagonist’s story arc. This option should only be considered when you’ve tried the other solutions because you’re tearing up a lot of work you’ve already done. You are starting over.
Play With Your Strengths
Congratulate yourself on creating a strong character when you sense a character taking over your story. Then stop to evaluate what causes this character to derail the story. Work though the causes to arrive at the best solution for your story.
Bolster your main characters, especially the protagonist and the antagonist—the sleuth and the villain. Make your storyline robust, up the stakes, and bring your rogue character in line with the other characters. You’ll transform your rogue character into their rightful place in the story.