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?

Thought of the Week: Character-Driven Fiction

I spent some time today (possibly wasted time—hard to say) going back through books one, two and what’s finished of three and counting the number of named characters in each book. Total so far? Ninety-three.

Nearly one hundred names in two and a half books seems pretty extreme; it means at least two newly introduced names per chapter, at least. Of course, not nearly all of these characters are important, and sometimes they are named merely for the sake of convenience (e.g. keeping track of who’s talking in dialogue). Of these ninety-three characters, twenty-four of them I’ve counted as ‘primary characters’; that is to say, characters without whom the book or the events within could not exist. Among these are:

  • Brandyé Dui-Erâth: the primary protagonist and hero of the story
  • Elven Dottery: his closest friend, and secondary protagonist from Exile onward
  • Elỳn: an Illuèn (race of Light), who features primarily in Brandyé’s dreams in the first book
  • Sonora: Elven’s sister, and catalyst for many of the events in Consolation

I ended up creating a mind map of all the characters, because I’m at the point where I’m starting to reuse certain names, simply because I forgot that I already used them before. This is what it looks like at the moment:

Mind map of the characters in The Redemption of Erâth, with partial connections shown.

Mind map of the characters in The Redemption of Erâth, with partial connections shown.

This is something I actually had to separate off from the mind map I’d created for the entire book series, which included a lot of other information such as races, themes, locations, etc. This mind map is actually so large that I feel it’s now less than helpful:

Mind map of the entire book series!

Anyway, the point of this is to say that I’m starting to feel a little overwhelmed by all these characters rearing their little heads and telling me their names. It makes me realize, though, that not all great fiction necessarily relies on a great number of characters. And that makes me despair, slightly.

How many people were in The Lord of the Rings?

How many people were in The Lord of the Rings?

Now when it comes to characters, there exist absolutely phenomenal stories with very large numbers of characters. According to Middle-Earth in Statistics, there are nearly 1,000 named characters throughout Tolkien’s extended worlds, including The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit and The Silmarillion. A huge number of these are there merely in passing, but nonetheless exist and were created by Tolkien at some point. Similarly, according to (the wonderfully reliable) Yahoo Answers, there are 772 named characters throughout the Harry Potter seriesWar and Peace purportedly has over 600 in a single novel.


“Without Pip, Estella, Joe, Miss Havisham and the others, there would be no story at all.”


Miss Havisham—one of the most unforgettable characters in literary history.

Miss Havisham—one of the most unforgettable characters in literary history.

However, one of my favorite works of fiction ever, Charles Dickens’ masterpiece Great Expectations, has only eighteen characters worth mentioning (according to SparkNotes). How did an enormous epic such as Great Expectations manage to reach its conclusion with such a comparably small number of characters? How did Dickens manage to keep the reader interested in so few people over such a long novel?

To my mind, the answer lies not only in the development of the characters, which Dickens does masterfully, but in the narrative itself, and the fact that in Great Expectations, the entire story is the story of the characters. It’s a life tale. Without Pip, Estella, Joe, Miss Havisham and the others, there would be no story at all. No one of them could be removed without severely affecting the outcome of the story, or potentially rendering it utterly impossible.

As much as I love the Harry Potter series, the same can’t truthfully be said, and this is evidenced by the film series: so many characters from the books were excised, condensed or changed that in some places things seem almost utterly different. Did Harry really need Hermione and Ron? Arguably not—the relationship between the three central characters, whilst important, doesn’t necessarily drive the story. Harry could have been attributed the characteristics of his two friends, and the battle against Voldemort and evil would have remained relatively unchanged.

Frodo and Sam—who really needed the other more?

Frodo and Sam—who really needed the other more?

To a lesser extent, the same could be said of The Lord of the Rings. Did Frodo really need Sam? Arguably, Merry and Pippin were more crucial to the plot than the relationship between these two main characters, for they encouraged the Ents to war, without which Helm’s Deep likely would have fallen.

And it makes me wonder about the direction of my own story. In some ways, The Redemption of Erâth is, like Great Expectations, the story of a single man’s life, from childhood to old age (much of which we have yet to see). But I’m starting to wonder if the story is too plot-driven; how much does the plot rely on the relationships between the various people of the world I’ve created? As far as I can see (and bear in mind, I can see a little further than you, the reader, at the moment!), there are only three people in the entire story that absolutely must exist for the story to be; much like Harry Potter only ‘needs’ Harry and Voldemort, or The Lord of the Rings only ‘needs’ Frodo and Sauron. At least I have more than that, but when I think about a masterpiece like Great Expectations, I realize that every one of those eighteen characters absolutely must be there, or the story fails. And it makes me wonder—where does my own story lie?

Which do you think is better—character- or plot-driven fiction?


Featured image from http://www.fanpop.com/clubs/harry-ron-and-hermione/images/7724592/title/trio-hbp-photo.

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