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My Character Hijacked My Story. Now What?

Imagine this: a writer prepares an outline for a new novel. The writer takes great care to develop the story. His main character is well-defined. There is a clear story arc. The writer has listed the key events. It’s all there: the premise, the theme, the entire piece. And then the writer sits down to write.

About one-third of the way through the story, the writer makes a shocking discovery. He didn’t see this coming. Something is very wrong here. What happened? One of his characters has hijacked the story. This wasn’t part of the outline. It wasn’t even in his head. Worse still, it’s not the main character who has stolen away with the story.

This scenario happened to me during the writing of my National Novel Writing Month novel. It’s still happening and guess what? I am making no attempt to stop it from happening. How did this happen? Let me share some background. My story centers on an aging, alcoholic lawyer, Frank O’Malley, who is dying of cancer. His last wish is to reconcile with his estranged daughter, Maura. When I wrote the outline, I had the idea that Frank was the main character. Maura would exist as a sort of spectral presence–a mysterious figure who walked out on her family ten years earlier and kept her whereabouts from her loved ones.

As I started to write the first scenes, I labored over every scene with Frank in it. There are only so many ways one can write the interior monologue of a dying man, wracked by regrets and grief over the disappearance of his daughter and the death of his wife. When I wrote the scenes about Maura–this ghostly presence–a strange and wonderful thing occurred. Maura came alive. I traced her journey from the day she discovered she was pregnant, to the argument with her father that resulted in her leaving home, to Maura moving in with her rock musician boyfriend. And then the dramatic moment came to me: her boyfriend abandoned her and she was evicted and forced out onto the streets of Boston during one of the worst snowstorms the city had ever endured. From there, the events and scenes flowed one after another.

When I reflected on the reason Maura emerged as the central character, it was obvious. Her story involved action, movement, adversity, obstacles and daunting struggles she had to overcome to reach her goal. Frank’s story was a downward arc; he was dying and would continue to die and then he would be dead.

How does a writer know when a character has hijacked her story? The scenes involving this character come easy. The writer can’t wait to finish one scene and get to the next one. Conversely, the scenes involving the original main character become a struggle. The writer stares at a blank screen, unable to come up with real scenes and authentic story lines.

Here are some tips for dealing with rogue characters:

  • Roll with it, at least until the story plays out. Even if the new main character completely changes the story arc, see where it leads.
  • Define what it is about the new main character that is so interesting. Does this character have deeper motivations and internal struggles? How can the writer best maximize those challenges?
  • Consider the possibility of more than one main character. When I read Barbara Kingsolver’s classic novel, The Poisonwood Bible, I had a hard time sorting out who the main character was. I had a similar experience with The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger. It was clear Henry DeTamble was the main character, but Clare had an equally important and symbiotic role in the story.
  • Reassess your decision once you have completed the first draft and given yourself time to reflect. Did it work as well as you thought? Or was your original outline the right way to go?

Have you ever had a major character hijack your story? How did you deal with it?

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