Years ago I wrote an urban romance with lots of sex and one-dimensional characters like the bestsellers of the day. Anyhow, a minor character, a security guard, whose only role was to watch the hero bang a woman in the parking lot, ended up taking over the whole book. Knowing the story got away from me, I abandoned the novel.
When I tell people (non-writers) this they look at me as if I started speaking Martian.
“How can a figment of your imagination get out of hand? Don’t you have control over your thoughts?”
The answer to that is, “Not really.”
Sometimes a character takes on a life of its own and can steal the spotlight from the main characters. Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean was supposed to be the lovable sidekick. Steve Urkle from Family Matters who was slated to appear on one episode. Wolverine, Boba Fett, Elmo, Fonzie, Popeye, Spock, Porky Pig, and dozens of others began as minor characters that took off way beyond what their creators ever designed.
Plants can get like that too. I’m talking about seedlings that grow too tall too fast. They get ‘leggy’. When a plant gets too leggy, the stem can’t support the leaves and eventually fall over, or they wither up and dry out because the thin stem can’t support the leaves. Either way it’s bad news when a plant gets too skinny for its own good.
Break-out characters can ruin a book or make it a success. Just as leggy plants can waste weeks of effort and resources or give your garden a head-start on the season. Both have challenges and rewards. The key is to know when to give up and start over or when to push through.
When a minor character’s storyline becomes more entertaining than your hero’s story, it’s time to let the hero fall into Mark Twain’s Deadly Well. You could then be free to tell the better story. That’s not to say that shifting to a whole different story is easy. Neither is nurturing and training a leggy seedling.
Honestly, it’s easier to replant the sprout rather than nurse a leggy plant to health. But the things that one does to get a leggy plant off the ground make it a healthier and hardier plant. I prefer the resistance method. I place an oscillating fan over the leggy plant and let the gentle breeze blow that stringy stem.
The air flow release hormones to make the stem stronger. If they haven’t started standing after a week, it time to bury the stem and give it chance to grow a thicker shorter stem.
But here is the thing. I almost always baby my leggy plants. I never toss them out until they are dead, dead, dead. I know that I can start over, do it better this time, pay closer attention. I just can’t kill my darlings, just like I let some characters run roughshod in a story, when I know I should bury them up to their necks and see what the tide does.
When you find characters stealing the spotlight, throw some resistance their way. If they survive, they can take their rightful place by the side of the hero. But if they thrive, then it’s time to rethink who is the real hero.