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?
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.
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.
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.
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.