Once upon a time, just for the laugh of it, I wrote a story in which the main characters of all the works-in-progress in my writing group all went on strike. Some of the characters were demanding more “screen time”. One character insisted he should have a scene with two bikini-clad ladies in a hot tub. Another wanted a different boyfriend, and one more wanted to be able to paint her toenails. I made fun of myself as well – my striking character, Lyristus, was complaining that he’d been beaten up several times but hadn’t had any lovin’ to balance it out. As I said, when I began, I thought I was writing it for the fun of it, but along the way I realized my character was trying to tell me something. He’d been harboring a secret love of an unattainable woman for nearly the whole book, and that love needed to be a central focus of the story. Lyristus wasn’t a secondary character – he was a protagonist, and I hadn’t noticed until I let him go on strike.
I’m sure you’ve all heard writers say that they had a perfectly clear idea of what would happen in their novels, until the characters got going and changed everything. It’s true, at least for me. Once the characters are created and the story gets going, they will cry and get drunk and spend too much money and dance like fools in front of the Duke of Burgundy, all the things real people do. And sometimes when they take that sudden left turn, it may drive the author nuts, but it makes for a more brilliant story.
So here’s your homework, kids. Tell me about a character you’ve written that turned your story upside-down. (Readers, you can play, too – tell me about a character you read that you think might have done something like that to his author.)