When Characters Derail the Plot

My characters have a pesky habit of doing things I didn’t expect them to – especially when they’re talking to each other. Frankly, it’s kind of annoying and I wish they’d quit it, but they never listen to me any more than they listen to each other. It makes it very difficult to plan a conversation that advances the plot, because they don’t care which way the story goes, especially if they haven’t said their piece yet.

When I’m writing more plot-driven fantasy, like The Redemption of Erâth, it’s mildly infuriating because there are plenty of dialogue scenes that are required to explain a plot point or give some back story. It’s fine when it’s mostly one character relating events that happened to them, but when I need characters to come to a realization or change the nature of their relationship (fight, fall in love, etc.), they just don’t do what I want or expect.

When I’m writing heavily character-driven fiction, such as my YA novel 22 Scars (as C.M. North), it becomes a major pain in the ass, because the entire story hinges on people in the book saying the things that they need to say to get to the next plot point … and sometimes, they just don’t.

The problem is in keeping the back and forth of the dialogue realistic. It just doesn’t work out to have conversations like this:

Character A: “Relinquish her, you fiend!”
Character B: “Never, sir! Prepare to die!”
Character A: “Prepare thyself!”
*Fight begins because really that’s what this was all getting at in the first place*

My dialogue tends to go more like this:

Character A: “Relinquish her, you fiend!”
Character B: “Never, sir! Prepare to die!”
Character A: “Oh. That’s a rather intense threat. Maybe we should talk about this.”
Character B: “Speak what thou wilst.”
Character A: “Well you see, it looks like you aren’t treating my friend here with all that much respect, and I think you’d find yourself in a significantly happier relationship if you took a moment to listen to what she has to say.”
Character C: “I’ve been telling you all along, I’m not unhappy, I just want to be heard! You come home every day from pillaging and burning villages and you track mud all over my tapestries, and I just want you to appreciate what I do for you!”
Character B: “Hm. I think I could do that.”
Character A: “Now, isn’t that better?”

Okay, so this isn’t a great example, but it serves to illustrate how my characters, especially in dialogue, tend to take on a life of their own and drive the direction of the story in ways I never anticipated.

It makes overall plotting difficult, and I’m not a pantser. I structure my stories meticulously before beginning to write, and when I’m writing narrative passages, action sequences or even just single-character scenes, things tend to flow pretty smoothly. As soon as these characters have to interact with each other, though, things go bat-shit crazy. I have a scene I’m working on at the moment where a young man confronts his abusive father, and it’s ended up at a point where the young man is threatening the father with the broken neck of a bottle. I didn’t think that was going to happen, and I can’t see a way out of it without sending the father to the hospital, which is really going to derail the plot, because it’s going to require a police report, possibly a trial, and a whole lot of nonsense that isn’t relevant to the story. I just needed them to have a fight – the bottle was never supposed to be part of the scene, but I’ll be damned if the kid didn’t just up and snatch it.

Anyway, the point is that I find writing dialogue difficult, but perhaps not for the reason most people do. I don’t have too much difficulty writing believable dialogue, but rather the opposite: in making it too realistic, I can’t control its direction very well.

For those of you who write, what’s your experience in writing dialogue? Can you manage to convey the points necessary within your control, or do you find that, like me, the characters tend to do what they want?

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