When Characters Try to Run the Show


Photo by Carson Masterson on Unsplash

Hi, SEers John with you today. I hope your Monday is starting well.

How about those characters? I mean, who gives them the right to walk off with a story that, for the most part, was the author’s creation in the first place? Of course, I’m talking about the fact that characters tend to take over a story and do it boldly without permission. It can be uncomfortable for an author, especially if the story starts to go to a place that is a surprise. But, the characters often seem to take over, which raises a question. Is an author aware when the characters are gaining control?

This post will point out signs that the characters are starting to run away with the show. Here they are.

  1. The writer never thought of killing a particular character, but the character is lying on the floor in a pool of blood. You better believe one of the characters is behind the whole thing.
  2. The writer wanted the story to be about hometown America, but before chapter one is complete, one of the characters shoots up the local food store. You can believe this was not the writer’s idea. The writer had never written a thriller before.
  3. The writer crafts a lovely romantic scene where a couple embraces, and then before long, no one has their clothes on. This was supposed to be a romantic comedy, and we are covering our eyes.
  4. The writer describes a peaceful Sunday where the family all sit on the porch enjoying the day when off in the distance, hundreds of parachutes announce the presence of invading soldiers. So much for historical fiction. This has become an adventure.
  5. The writer sets out to tell a story about two friends who will face the challenges of a month-long hike in the wilderness only to have them enter into a complex relationship. No telling where it will end.
  6. The writer does the research to compose the most accurate historical fiction of the 1800s, and then a character takes off in a time machine. It looks like a new sci-fi is coming up.
  7. The writer sets up an intricate cozy mystery and decides that Colonel Mustard is the killer. All is well and good until Colonel Mustard is found dead in the living room. There is a character lurking who didn’t like the other ending.
  8. The writer designs a paranormal plot where the king of the spirits has decided to take over the world. Everything is going according to plan until a slight twist introduces the king of spirits’ ex-wife, bent on revenge. A guess that the ex-wife was not happy being anonymous.
  9. The writer decides to do a thriller with terrorists attacking a high-rise office building. The leader of the terrorists comes face to face with the director of the SWAT team, only to discover the head is his brother-in-law. Now, what, guys? Standoff or what?
  10. The writer sets up a story where a group of travelers on vacation is kidnapped and held for ransom. Unbeknownst to the kidnappers, one of the travelers is an ex-CIA agent specializing in black ops. Just when he is going to get the drop on the kidnappers, a young girl recognizes him from a PBS broadcast about his life. Whelp, there goes the surprise, and now we have a different story.

All these examples are for fun, of course, and give you a hint that there is about to be a character takeover of the book. It should be up to the author to accept the takeover or try to fight it. From my experience, l usually let them go to see what happens.

How about you? Do your characters get free rein in a story? Let’s chat in the comments.

114 thoughts on “When Characters Try to Run the Show

  1. Hi John.
    I’m likely a new name to you but have been creating story blog characters for a few years now.
    This was a fun and scary accurate read.
    I wrestle with some characters and have found threats helpful. I’ve threatened anything from, early deaths, less stage time and debilitating diseases. Mine fear less stage time the most – go figure.
    I’m likely too willing to let them run so I can consider whatever they’re thinking, but I hate ripping out pages of work when their ideas are pure bird droppings.
    I’ve been decently treated and have had several stories become popular despite not being what I meant to write.
    Thanks for a fun look at this topic.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Gary. I laughed out loud at your methods of trying to maintain control over your characters. I agree the threat of less stage time seems to work best. My thriller trilogy’s antagonist is a lawyer named John Cannon. He begged me to let him shoot someone and as hard as I tried to argue it was not in his character he wouldn’t stop.Finally I let him shoot someone and he promptly threw up. Never asked again. I enjoyed your comments, and went to your site. Lot of great stories there and was intrigued by your bio. I lived in Novato for about three years then moved to Sonoma (The town) so I am very familar with Petaluma. Best wishes to you.


      • Thanks John,
        You did live nearby in Novato and Sonoma isn’t much further away. I had to laugh at the image of your MC throwing up after shooting someone. I’m going to struggle to not use a variation of such a scene. Sounds like the making of a new self-hatred problem.
        I do have a list of stories I’m pretty proud of and am trying to get enough experience with creating compelling reading to make a book less of a risk of out right failure. I write mostly what I call clean and credible human drama, almost all are less than 10 minute reads. This is my practice arena. I still work a day job so I don’t get as much time as I would like, but I do like getting paid so what’s a guy to do? I write when I can things like this:

        Thanks for stopping by and leaving me smiling. Sounds like you have accomplished what I hope to some day.
        Kind regards

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post. I’ve had to put some reigns on some of my major characters. He/she can’t get all intimate with everyone they end up trapped or lost with, even when it’s a ‘stormy night’ by the fireside. It does affect the scene structure coz que a disturbing raccoon in the attic or rats in the wall that disrupt another potentially romantic scene. Maybe you get to knoe your character so well that you consciously put them in situations which at the least, eliminate some options they may be likely to take otherwise.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Not sure I have enough experience to offer an opinion, but here goes anyway. Part of what you are getting at besides characters taking over a story is the pantser vs. plotter issue. In the brief time that I’ve been writing fiction, I’ve primarily been a pantser. I find that the most fun to let the writing take off. With experience, I think I’m learning this can also be a minefield. I’m not saying one is preferable over the other, but I can see the benefits of each. I think for me, it will have to be a happy medium somewhere in between.


  4. Pingback: When Characters Try to Run the Show – Written By John W. Howell – Writer's Treasure Chest

  5. Aaah, familiar territory, John! My characters are always heading off in a different direction than I’d planned. Mostly, I just go with them to see what they’re up to. And as for Rabbit, well, that little boy pretty much dictates his entire adventures to me. My job is just to keep typing as fast as I can so I can keep up with him and find out what happens in the end.

    FUN post, my friend, and some excellent adventures in the making, too! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  6. LOL! I loved your examples, John. Humorous, but so true, too.
    I’ve had stories highjacked by characters. While writing the second book of my Hode’s Hill series, I had a character pop out of my keyboard, that I didn’t even know existed. She took over as the lead in the third book, when I had an entirely different set of characters who were supposed to run with that book. Like you, I usually let my characters have their way. Sometimes, I’m just along for the ride. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  7. My characters can and do surprise me while I’m working on plot points, but once I’ve hammered those out, they have less wiggle room. They can still manage sometimes as long as they don’t change the structure of the story. I loved your examples. Gave me a good laugh on Monday morning!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Oh yes! I have definitely had characters take over the story and take it on a decidedly different path. But I have to admit I love it when that happens. That’s when I start to feel like a channel for them to tell their story through. What a fun top ten list, John! I love how you are incorporating that m.o. into Story Empire posts!

    Liked by 2 people

  9. I love when this happens!! It’s like a fun form of psychosis. Any of you ever have it where sometimes the character does a better job with the story then you? I’m like, “Excuse me, bitch, i’m the writer here. You’re just a non-solid figment of thought from a different planet who doesn’t know A thing about how to operate a Mac Book keyboard. On second thought, you rock. Go ahead and take over while I just sit here and press letter keys.”

    Liked by 2 people

  10. A fun post. John. I think most of us have been surprised by our characters. For me, it’s usually a character that I’m planning to kill off. He vehemently objects and makes a case for why that’s a terrible idea. And he usually wins the negotiation. 😀

    Liked by 2 people

  11. I laughed aloud multiple times reading your character examples, thank you. I like to just let it flow and see where it goes. It’s the unusual element of surprise that is part of the creative process. Relinquishing the reins and let the horses run free, so to speak. 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Pingback: When Characters Try to Run the Show | Jeanne Owens, author

  13. Brilliant! I’ve given up writing a detailed plot because my characters come up with an unexpected and more interesting one that derails the original plan very early on. I tried to fight it, initially, but when I tried to pull things back on track, not even I was that interested in it anymore. This post made me laugh – and now I have ten new starting points to consider… 🤣

    Liked by 3 people

    • I’m glad you got a laugh, Trish. When you fight those guys things definitely can change for the worse. I view my characters as horses pulling a stage coach. I can guide them to some extent but mostly they know the way. Thanks. 😁


  14. Up to a point, I like characters to surprise me. Genre suggests where to draw the line based on readers’ pre-established expectations. For example, scan Amazon reviews of bestselling novels to see where an author allowed the character to cross that line, resulting in critical reviews.

    Liked by 2 people

  15. Oh, yes, I can relate. My first novel was intended to be a stand-alone book. Because one character wouldn’t allow me to have him as the villain, I had to create a new one and make him a good guy. Not only that, he “demanded” that I tell his story in a future book. Thus, a series was born.

    Love this post, John.

    Liked by 4 people

  16. Pingback: When Characters Try to Run the Show | Legends of Windemere

  17. This was a fun post and examples, John:) I do let the characters take over once I get the beginning down. I love being surprised and they have much better ideas than me.

    Liked by 6 people

  18. Hi John, this is a very entertaining post, I enjoyed it very much. My latest character, Jake, in The Soldier and the Radium Girl, resisted death to such an extent that I’ve had to let him live. This book will now be historical fiction only and not have a paranormal element. I tried and tried to kill him but every time he manage to escape and keep living. Haha, that must be how it’s supposed to be.

    Liked by 7 people

We'd love to know what you think. Comment below.

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s