Being a Better Writer: Runaway Characters and Script

Hello readers! Welcome back! It’s another Monday, and bigger still another month! It’s officially April! So, let’s drop some updates before we get into the meat of things. Starting with some real news about Starforge.

Alpha Reading continues, slowly but surely. The furthest reader is about halfway through now (I did mention this is a 500,000 words book, didn’t I?) and the rest of the Alphas trailing somewhere near or far behind. Right now, since I’m hot on the heels of the lead for edits, I’m thinking of starting a second edit pass back on the early chapters, specifically with regards to a phew larger rather than smaller overhauls (like on chapter three, which needs some serious “sanding” on those rough edges).

The pace, though, says this one might take a while. I’d like to get it out this November, but currently the Alpha’s have had access to Starforge since early-to-mid February and we’re now in April with the leader among them only halfway through. Big. Book. At the current pace then, the slowest of the current Alpha Readers will finish it around … August. Which is a little too late for getting a second Alpha batch in, followed by at least two Beta passes and a copy edit if it’s going to be out by November. That would leave three months for a second Alpha pass, two Beta passes, etc.

I may have to do what I’ve done before and leave a few Alpha Readers behind, especially as there are already waiting people for the second Alpha Read (plus the Beta). Schedule is a requirement, and I simply can’t wait until 2023 or 2024 to get Starforge out.

On the plus side, those who have been Alpha Reading have really been enjoying it as the story has taken off (though again, not without areas that are getting fixed, changed, tweaked, etc). I’m enjoying the feedback and seeing the reactions of readers as they journey through the finale of this trilogy!

I really would like to see this one released by November, and that means getting the first Alpha done by at least the start of May. Earlier if possible. If you’re a current Alpha Reader who hasn’t sat down at it yet, please take the time and dig in. As with Colony and Jungle, you’ll very likely find it hard to pull away (past a few problem areas you’ll already see comments about).

Now, news outside of Starforge: Topic List #19 is almost exhausted, so this week I’ll be posting a call for writing topics you’d like to see in future Being a Better Writer posts. I’ll also be planning a live Being a Better Writer for the coming weeks, where we do a live Q&A on the Discord for everyone to listen in on. And if I end up heading up to Alaska in a few weeks (more on that as it develops) for a short trip, once again I’ll be building a backlog of Being a Better Writer posts, along with other posts to keep the site delivering content while I’m “off the grid.” I’m fairly certain that’s going to happen, but the timing so far has been very loose.

In other news The Minstrel and the Marshal is ready for submission to Troubadours and Space Princesses, the next LTUE Anthology collection. As each author is allowed two submissions this year, I’m debating a smaller, goofier and more light-hearted second entry, though it needs a little more brainstorming.

Submissions do close at the end of the month, so if you’re curious about submitting, or would like to have a go at getting your name in print—for a good cause no less—then check out the submission guidelines here.

Really quick, since I did mention The Minstrel and the Marshal, I do want to talk about plans for upcoming writing projects (and other writing-related stuff). While Alpha Editing is going on I do tend to have some time to write on the side (how Minstrel and its predecessor were written) and there are a few more short story concepts for More Unusual Events that I could plot out. Past that, if I take some spare time to write, it’s definitely time for another Jacob Rocke adventure, and I have been slowly putting a new mystery together for him to solve!

After that gets written (sometime over this spring, likely while I’m letting Alpha/Beta Readers build up a headway) then the next project will be Axtara – Magic and Mayhem. Oh, and somewhere in there I should look at polishing up Fireteam Freelance.

And with all that said … let’s talk Being a Better Writer and put the news on hold, shall we? That was a bit of a news dump, so let’s swing to today’s topic and talk about what to do when your characters or your script start to run away with things. Hit that jump, and let’s talk writing!

Okay, in classic fashion, let’s start this post off by defining what we mean when we say that a character or a script is “running away with things. So let us look at some examples of what this sort of experience looks like.

In Example A, let us say that you are writing a cool fantasy story that you’ve had in mind for a while. You’ve got some really lively characters, a great final set piece that the plot is working toward … And then something weird happens. Bit by bit, or maybe even all at once, the lead character or characters suddenly do the opposite of what you’d planned for them to do. Say they needed to go down a certain road to arrive at that cool finale you had planned, but instead they looked at the crossroads and said, quite in character “Hah! No way, we’re doing this instead!” and promptly went down another path. Now you’re in a pickle, because you’d built everything around that setpiece at the end, but the characters didn’t play ball, and now they’re not headed toward it!

Now, maybe you sigh in frustration and delete that new path. You go back to the moment the decision was made and shove the characters toward the setpiece. But something is wrong. Suddenly things don’t feel right, though you can’t quite say how. But something is off, something with the characters. Almost like they’re fighting you to get back to that path that they would have taken.

Example B is similar but a little different. So you’ve got this cool story all laid out, things are rolling along smoothly, you’ve got these characters all figured … and then something goes wrong. The plot is really getting going, but its taking the characters in a direction you hadn’t planned on for their growth, or would prefer they not go, because you want them to experience something that doesn’t appear will happen on this new path.

Now, as with the other example, you backtrack and force the plot to go the other direction so that the characters will get the development you’re hoping for. Except … though they are, something feels hollow with the rest of the story. Like it’s just going through the motions.

Example C is a little bit of both, but with a different outcome. Regardless of each time you try to go back and make the change, the characters or the plot just keep shifting. Now you’re running blind. You have no idea where the story is going. You’ve lost control and don’t know how it’s going to end, or even what’s going to happen. You might even be unsure of what you’re going to stick into this sudden “void” of a blind path, panic, and put the story down, resolving to come back to it “someday” when you know what you did wrong.

All of these are examples of something in the story “running away” with things. In Example A, it’s the characters taking on a life of their own. In Example B, it’s the plot moving in directions that pulled away from the expected path of character development. And for Example C, it’s both leading the nervous author down an unplanned path that alarms them so much—especially as it keeps happening—that they conclude that they’re doing something wrong, and as they can’t recognize what yet, only that they can’t get the story to go “where they want it” step away or even stop altogether.

Some of you might be taken aback by this, or even questioning “Really?” but yes, this happens. There’s even an old, possibly apocryphal tale about Frank L. Baum, the writer of the Oz series, falling into a serious funk during the writing of his books where he didn’t write for at least a week. His wife, noticing that he was spending all day in front of the typewriter becoming increasingly frustrated, is said to have asked what the matter was, only to be told “My characters won’t do what I want them to do.”

Another week passed, and suddenly he was back at the typewriter. His wife asked if he’d been able to figure out how to make the characters do what he wanted, and instead, according to the tale, Baum replied “Oh no, I just decided to let them do whatever they want to do!”

While this might seem like fairly straightforward advice, it’s often not as immediately “appealing” as it appears, especially to someone who had their heart set on a particular scene, finale, setpiece, or character development. Sometimes young authors might even think that they’ve done “something wrong” because their story isn’t going as planned, and that the characters or the plot going off the “rails” is a horrible thing to be avoided.

This is understandable. In a way, it’s a bit like realizing that you took a wrong turn and your phone is out of service, your current location a mystery. Suddenly the path and plan ahead is a complete mystery, and that’s something that many think “never happens to a real author.”

That’s a lie, though. This happens to “real authors” all the time. However, where a new writer may see fear and the unknown, an experienced author will often just shrug, grin, and then say “Well, I’ll just rework that plan then.”

Because here’s the truth of a runaway story: There’s a reason all those “fixes” above left things feeling a little hollow. Don’t get me wrong; there are ways that you can “fix” that hollow feeling, though it will involve substantial foundation level changes as a requirement. But short of that? There’s a reason each example has a “fix” that leaves the story feeling lesser.

It’s because when a story begins to “run away” with itself, be that in characters, plot, or both, it’s because the story has become alive enough that it’s growing organically. It’s quite similar to the tabletop campaign where a DM has a bunch of stuff planned for the characters to go west after encountering the Big Bad, but the players, being true to their characters, instead go south.

There are two things the DM can do: They can force the characters to go west … or they can explore what happens if they go south, and take the ideas and concepts they had for the characters going west and see if they can fit them to the southern areas. One disregards the characters and their motivations (and the players) while the other lets them be their own actors.

Likewise, the same issues and solutions run true to letting our stories “run away” with themselves. If we force our characters or our plot to go “out way” we’ll end up with a feeling that these characters or this plot didn’t have “control” over itself. That had the author been “true” to who those characters are or what that plot was, things would have gone a different direction.

Many of you have likely read a book that left you with this feeling, where either the characters, the story, or both felt like it had been “railroaded,” like things only happened the way they did because the author wanted them to, not because the plot or the characters moved in that direction?

Yeah, that’s the “railroading” that takes place when someone doesn’t let the characters or the plot breathe and be itself.

This is, arguably, much worse than having flat characters or a dull plot because most readers can see the potential that was missed. They can see where how with just a little more freedom, something amazing could have happened. But the creator, committed to their “vision,” wouldn’t let the characters or the story have the freedom they deserved. A story with flat characters is one thing, but a story with characters trying to be three-dimensional but forcing them to stay flat? That’s just frustrating.

By now you’ve probably gathered that when a story starts to run away with itself, usually the best path forward is to let the story do just that. Whether it’s the characters, the plot, whatever, if you’ve created something that’s organic enough to take on a life of its own, you should let it!

However, this is not quite as straightforward as it sounds.

Don’t worry. That emphasis was to get your attention. Things aren’t as “serious” as I made them look. But I want to point out a few things here.

First, embracing the “living” nature of a plot or story does not mean that you have to discard completely that which you’ve already dreamed up. One of the big hold-ups that keeps writers from embracing the runaway is the erroneous belief that they’ll have to give up everything they’ve planned. This is … sort of true, but the real fact of the matter is that while it won’t be exactly as you imagined it, it’s very likely that you can reuse bits and pieces of that setpiece you were working toward. It might take some tweaking, for example if the original plot called for the two protags to be fighting with one another and their current direction means that they won’t be doing that, you may have to find another way for them end up in a situation similar, but not identical to being at odds with one another, and as well tweak the “resolution” to fit their new nature.

Sometimes this can be a real breaking point for creators who really wanted to deliver a specific scene only to find that the plot and character just won’t play along. This doesn’t mean that all is lost: Even if you tweak it or go with another ending entirely, you can take your experience and later write another story with characters and plot that will better move toward the resolution you wanted to see. Or, as mentioned earlier, you can go back to the foundation of things. But more on that later.

Second, I do want to caution that there are things you’ll need to watch for when you let characters and plot take a free path. If you had theme in mind for the story, or a particular concept you wanted to explore, you may need to figure out where you can adjust plot or perhaps even tweak a character in order to keep that theme going. For example, if your book is a tale about forgiveness and coming to grips with ones own failings, and then about a quarter of the way in it really wants to be a horror book, you will need to account for how you’re going to keep those themes alive, or even if you should. Sometimes you’ll be able to, and other times you’ll need to “adjust” the opening before things took on their own life to remove elements that are no longer explored in the story, or to add build-in for new themes that the characters and/or plot introduced on their own.

You can let your characters and your plot run free, but be sure to keep abreast of what they’re all up to so that you can make sure that the themes and ideas developed along the way are given the focus and attention they need at all points in the story.

Third, do not let the story run so freely that it wanders aimlessly or never sees a conclusion. While it is fine to let our characters be themselves and the plot move in new directions, we shouldn’t let that direction be “aimless.”

Recall plot structure. Work toward an ending. Don’t let the story just run endlessly until you become bored. One of the “failings” I’ve seen with young authors willing to let their story run free is that they let it run too free, going on and on and on and inevitably going nowhere or turning into a serial—which is perfectly fine for some mediums, but doesn’t suite a book that well (instead, try making that into a bunch of shorts).

Freedom does not mean “directionless.” It merely means that characters or plot can choose where they go next. It’s not aimless, but to a purpose.

Now, one last thing to talk about before we recap: Rebuilding from the foundation. What if you really are committed to the plot or finale, whatever, that the characters were moving away from, and don’t want to compromise that vision, but also don’t want to “save it for later” and write another book?

Well, you are in luck. Sort of. Because there is a way to fix this and get back to your vision without the characters feeling “flat.” The problem is … you’re going to need to make some foundational changes.

Effectively, what this will require your doing will be retooling your characters or plot from the ground up. You won’t be replacing everything, but what you’ll be dong is identifying the aspects of the characters or plot that led to their freedom wanting them to go in a different direction, and changing them so that they will execute a “choice” in the direction you want.

This isn’t just “hey, they’ll choose A instead of B.” This is literally going back to their roots and rewriting their character (or in a plot’s case, maybe changing background, elements of setting, etc, that led to the change). We’re talking a change of personality, aims, goals, whatever it takes to get the character to organically choose the new path you want them to take.

This is daunting. Especially if there’s a lot that will need to be changed. But again, the other option is to have a three-dimensional character (or evolving plot) that gets railroaded or shoved into being flat and two-dimensional, so it really boils down to a question of how much work you’re willing to put forth to realize your vision. Because you will have to work to make it work.

Okay, I lied. There’s one last thing I want to discuss: That fear of the unknown when your story and characters take you off of the page of the planned and into the fog.

Learn to enjoy it. See it for the adventure that it is, for both you and your characters. Not every step has to be into the known. If your characters are carrying you into unknown paths, trust them and see where you end up. You might surprise yourself.

Okay, and with that we are truly done on today’s topic. So remember, just because a story or your characters seem to be running away with things doesn’t mean that your story is a disaster. It just means that you’ve given life to something that’s now taking its own steps and growing for itself. It also doesn’t mean that you have to abandon everything you’ve planned. Maybe just … tweak it. A little. There are elements you’ll want to keep in mind, but at the end of the day, there is no reader out there who would rather see a three-dimensional character shoved into a flat space over a developed one freely navigating their world.

So enjoy the unknown.

Good luck, and get writing.

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