The Runaway Character

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Have you ever worked on a story and found a character off to stage left keeps insistently pushing their way forwards, stealing the limelight in every scene in which they feature and generally making a nuisance of themselves to such an extent that you have to start taking more notice of them?

runaway

This has happened to me on a number of occasions. As a writer we are soon faced with two choices, we can either learn to love the impudent rascals and give them the space they need to breathe or we can take them out of the story completely.

If we leave them in we are often rewarded with a richer story with more depth and colour than would otherwise have been the case.

Fans of Gossip Girl may be surprised to learn that the character of Chuck Bass was only meant to be an occasional and minor player in the teen soap but ended up being one of the central characters and the show was all the better and more entertaining for it.

We do however need to be careful that we do not end up creating a monster who even though you have built their part up is still going to ape the limelight and make the hero/heroine seem dull in comparison.

Overshadowed
Bored by Jose courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/6yqaro https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

This came to my mind recently when watching Britannia on TV. The character of Divis – a demon-possessed outcast – steals every scene he appears in. Clearly having a ball with the role was actor Nikolaj Lie Kaas. Wonderful as he was to watch, I cannot have been alone in being ever so slightly bored whenever he was not on the screen, surely not what the writers or producers intended.

[Incidentally, when the second best thing about the show is the song chosen as the theme tune you know a show has issues. In case you are wondering the tune in question is Hurdy Gurdy Man by Donovan played over psychedelic titles – it shouldn’t work on any level but is an absolute triumph. Gold star to whoever was brave enough to suggest it in the first place].

But let’s get back to our runaway characters. It can be an exciting and challenging time when one of your characters threatens to go off piste and run away with the whole thing. As writers we are entering uncharted territory, unsure of our destination and sometimes, often, that is where the magic happens. Enjoy the ride but remember you are ultimately in control. It is enormous fun to follow this character wherever they want to go but it must never be to the detriment of the story you are trying to tell.

Fast car

A runaway character can be a blessing and a curse. Use them well and the outcome can be glorious. Use them badly and you may end up with an indulgent mess.

crash
Crash by Cha Gia Jose courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/4Toeoj https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

As you hang on to the coattails of a runaway character you need to keep asking yourself the same question – is the story better because of this? If the answer is yes, great. If the answer is no, then perhaps you are simply telling the wrong story.

Happy writing!

white lies
White Lies by Ellie Holmes http://Author.to/EllieHolmes

 

 

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Third Man Through The Door

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The Third Man Through The Door concept is taken from film makers. In the most literal interpretation the third man (or woman) came through the door after the hero or heroine and the sidekick.

Third Person concept
Three O by Kwanie courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/nWtFM https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Often they were there to bolster the ego of the first two characters and make them look good, sometimes even sacrificing themselves so the hero and sidekick could save the day.

Since reading about this concept many years ago I have always been surprised by just how many stories feature the third man – or person to be gender neutral. Once you are aware of their existence and the reason for their being in the story, you notice them more and more – films, tv and books all feature third people.

As a writer, I’m a pantser not a planner but third people evolve naturally in my stories and I bet they do in yours, too.

We are aware of stories from our youngest age and although we do not generally analyse the roles characters play in them or break them down into their component pieces, we are taking this information in, story by story, by osmosis. We learn that tales often have characters in certain roles and once we recognise those roles, we see them again and again.

Three's company

The third person role is vital to most stories, even if they do not feature throughout the piece, their influence will still be felt. They sometimes do the heavy lifting necessary to make a back story work, they can ask the right questions at the right time, they can impart crucial character information about the hero/heroine and sidekick and, of course, they make your central characters look good.

They are never going to be the sexy one or the most intelligent one – those roles are strictly reserved for your hero/heroine. They are not going to be particularly funny – that role often belongs to the sidekick. They are usually decent and fair and can sometimes be the moral compass of a piece or at least be there to guide the hero/heroine back on to the right track should they waver – although that role sometimes falls to the wise elder. Their backstory can be hinted at but is rarely explored. They are not there to be the centre of attention. They are, as their name suggests, a way down the pecking order and destined to stand off to the side, helping the story along whenever required.

man in shadows

I now find myself trying to pick out the third man in every film or TV show I watch or book I read. I must warn you, however, third person spotting becomes addictive. Once you learn how to recognise them, you will see them everywhere and wonder how come you never noticed them before.

I love the third person. I find the character intriguing and delightful and as a writer they are endlessly helpful and useful.   I urge you to love them too.

When creating your characters we lavish so much time and attention on our main players, rightly so, but try not to overlook the third person. Sketch in their backstory with a few strokes of your pen, give them a life, a past and a future (if they are not destined to die heroically saving the hero and the sidekick, of course ;)). They do such good work for us as writers, they deserve to be more than cardboard cut outs.

Sometimes I like my third person so much they stop being my third person and start to gravitate more to the centre of the piece but more on that next time.

Happy writing!

white lies
White Lies by Ellie Holmes http://Author.to/EllieHolmes

 

 

Winchester Writers’ Festival 2017 – Creating Credible Characters

I slept surprisingly well and I never sleep well away from home, perhaps the wine from the previous night helped! I woke early to a magnificent sunrise over the rolling Hampshire hills.

Sunrise
Winchester sunrise – Ellie Holmes

The town of Winchester is very smart and clearly well heeled. A quick glance in the estate agents’ windows the night before had revealed a modest Victorian terrace on the market for £650k, practically London prices. I assume many people commute to London from Winchester to work but, as with so many places, it must be almost impossible for the locals who do not work in London to get on the property ladder. I guess that’s a whole other blog, however.

The first full day of the festival had offered a range of one day courses to choose from. I plumped for Creating Credible Characters run by an author called Adrienne Dines.

Adrienne Dines Author
Adrienne Dines Author

The workshop had a large number of attendees so it was clearly a popular choice. Our base for the day was a light, airy but hot classroom.   We were blessed with a mini heatwave during this particular weekend and at times it did make concentration difficult and bottles of water essential.

Adrienne Dines was a powerhouse. Her energy and enthusiasm for her subject shone through and amazingly her dynamism did not flag throughout the entire day, carrying us all along on her cheery and knowledgeable wave.

Creating Credible Characters
Winchester Writers’ Festival 2017 – Creating Credible Characters Delegates’ copy

There were many highlights to the class not least Adrienne herself moving around the classroom like a whirling Dervish. Here are some of the notes that I jotted down.

Heroes are noble; villains are self-serving.

Main characters must need something and that need must get worse as the story continues.

To add a time limit adds tension to any story line.

Conflict between love and loyalty is a great conflict driver for a story.

Each scene should either be cutting the string of the plot or tying the string (magnificently demonstrated by Adrienne, a volunteer, a ball of string, scissors, a table leg and the class making up an ad hoc story).

Adrienne Dines 2
Adrienne Dines demonstrating ‘string theory’ with a volunteer

Emotionally there needs to be voyage and return.

Characters are either stayers or changers.

Put stayers in a situation where they have to change.

Stayers change the world around them. Changers are changed by the world.

A writer knows their characters from the inside out. A reader learns about those characters from the outside in.

This for me was the standout piece of advice. Obvious, isn’t it? But how many of us lose sight of that when we are struggling with our work in progress.

Along the way we zipped through emotional arcs, Maslow’s Hierachy of Needs, relationships, characters’ roles, viewpoint and dialogue amongst others.

We also investigated whether every character in our stories was “earning their keep” – did they have a purpose? We talked about the need to know our characters, including information we might not actually use in the book but as a helpful exercise in us learning about the characters we were creating – What do they value? How do they dress? When they are nervous how do they act?

There was also an interesting and engaging section on other more minor characters and putting them into subheadings – sidekick, understudy/lieutenant, confidante, romance, mirror, walk on/walk off and chorus. One character could have several of these roles in the course of a book or possibly only one. It was fun to take an existing piece of work and think about where my particular characters fitted into those subheadings.

Altogether, it was a draining but simultaneously exhilarating day. Adrienne’s energy drove the course along at a good pace which meant we packed a lot in. A lot of Adrienne’s suggestions were things I already instinctively do but a different spin on something familiar is always helpful and to someone starting out this course would have been invaluable. It would certainly have saved me a whole lot of work if Adrienne had been around at the start of my writing career.

Adrienne was excellent and if you ever get the chance to go to one of her courses or talks, take it. You won’t be disappointed.

 

white lies
White Lies by Ellie Holmes http://Author.to/EllieHolmes