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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Help, There’s A Pirate In My Manuscript! Should I Abandon Ship?

I recently saw a commericial for the next Pirates of the Caribbean movie, On Stranger Tides. It made me think of the first movie and how someone I thought was kind of a secondary character (or a co-star at most) absolutely stole the franchise. In the first movie, we were supposed to care about the love story between Elizabeth (played by the lovely Keira Knightly) and Will (played by the equally lovely Orlando Bloom).

Somehow, I thought the love story was the main plot (I should have known better—the movie features Jack so much). I thought Will was the the male lead, and Elizabeth was the female lead, with Jack Sparrow playing the foil to their more serious characters.

But I really didn’t care about those two much, because Jack Sparrow (pardon me, Captain Jack Sparrow) was so much more interesting. The franchise is, in fact, about Jack’s journeys, not some sappy love story. Jack is the star, which is one reason the story didn’t follow Elizabeth and Will to domestic bliss.

Have you ever had a character show up in your manuscript that tried to steal/pirate your plot away from you? This probably won’t bother you if you’re a Pantser, but Plotters tend to be more confused about such rogue characters. (Read this great post from Lisa Gail Green on Pantsers Vs. Plotters).

I had that happen recently, and I’m not quite sure what to do. I had a specific story and outline notes on paper, but this little beastie of a character keeps sticking his nose into everything. He’s become more fun to write about than the plot I had in mind. Do I give him a ration of authorial rum and tell him to go for it, or do I slap him on the wrist and tell him to get back in line and play his part? I’m just wondering what role the writer plays in being a disciplinarian to particularly cheeky characters. (Read this great post by Jen Daiker on Unleashing the Beast)

Being creative and going with the flow is a wonderful thing, but part of me is afraid it might lead to hanging onto a manuscript that no longer holds your heart. “I’m just going to see where this goes, and then I’ll get back to my outline” or “I’ll rewrite chapter five and six again to make this make sense” is fine and good and necessary, but what about the fourth or fifth time it happens? What happens when you’ve added 50,000 words of scenes to justify a few events by your clever pirate beastie and now your tight Lake Erie-sized manuscript has become the Pacific Ocean?

At some point, it might be best to accept that you may want to abandon the ship you first set sail on. There are worse things in writing than having to walk the plank with your pirate friend and swimming to a mysterious shore in the distance. You may have to start anew when you get there, with nothing but a soaken protagonist and a coconut tree for plot material. But you might be a bit happier.

And guess what? You’re more likely to find firm footing on an undiscovered island than on a sinking ship of a manuscript.

24 comments:

  1. Good post Jess! I'm a total pantster so when stuff like this happens it doens't rile me up too much. . . but if the character really wants to take over then I start wondering if my initial thoughts were completely misguided. I've seen a lot of instances where a secondary character completely 100% owns the show and eventually they get a sequel (or a spin-off if it's a television show).

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  2. Great post! Cap'n Sparrow, as portrayed by Johnny Depp, was a gamble for producers. And it worked! I say let your characters flow as they may. You might find a little gem, and a franchise.

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  3. I have had a couple of "story pirates" steal the hearts of the readers, but not the story itself, thank goodness.

    It's funny. If someone reads one of my middle grade books in my critique group and they say, "But you know what character I REALly love?" I always know exactly who they are talking about. (Usually because I love him, too!)

    Hooray for the story pirates!

    Shelley

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  4. it's happened to me, but then i'm a panster (so far)... so this is about how my writing process is in general. :)

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  5. Very good post. I think it's important to let the side characters have their own mini story arcs so they're as fleshed out as your main character, but it's also important to make sure that story arc fits into the greater plot and that your mc takes center stage again very quickly. If that isn't happening... then, yeah, I don't know, shuffle your side character back in line b/c this isn't his story lol.(and then promise him his own story later on if you get a multiple book deal *cough*)

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  6. Great post. I've had interesting characters appear, but I've never had one take over. I'm more of a pantser though, so if it ever happened I'd probably just go with it!

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  7. Hmmm... I say go for it. You never know how it will turn out, even though you're rightfully afraid.

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  8. I'm a total pantser who wishes to be a very organized plotter someday...but, I would still suggest you run with your cheeky pirate character and see where he/she takes you! If the character has that much of a voice in your head? Maybe that means something.

    And, sort of off topic, but it popped into my head when I read this blog title... :) I sat in on a live chat with agent Jessica Sinsheimer last night and she told someone that had "pirate" in their query - she told them that she likes pirates and to PLEASE write about pirates someday! (tangent...sorry!)

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  9. Oh yes I have had this thing happen to me with EVERY story I've written so far!!! (well, that's only three, but still). One character just HAS to get out of HAND and try to take over. It's caused me no end of delight- and frustration. And such a good point about Jack Sparrow, by the way.

    So, I don't have a good solution to extend to you. In one case, I completely re-wrote the book. The revision was much much better once I let the new character have her spotlight! (unfortunately, I didn't realize at the time that over 100,000 words for an MG novel wasn't going to work - so now I have to re-write the darn thing again into two books. I've shelved that one for now).

    Okay, sorry this is getting long but you can see this post really hit a nerve with me. Because the same thing just happened again with my current WIP, and it sort of paralyzed me, as I tried to figure out what to do. I've been fiddling with my outline for weeks now, trying decide what to do. I was 75% done with my WIP, but I just couldn't finish it with this unexpected turn of events as the result of a character gone out of control. And I had so carefully outlined this bugger too! I thought I had a foolproof plan!

    Well, ultimately you have to decide if you think the new character will make the story better the way he/she is taking it.

    I finally gave in last week and decided that yes indeed the new direction was better. After re-working my outline, I think I'll have re-write approximately 40%-50% of what I already have. Big sigh.

    But, it will be better story.

    Just not sure if I can make that Sept. deadline for querying now!!! Going to keep trying.

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  10. Great post, so true about Jack Sparrow, he was way more interesting than the others and ran away with the show. You see this quite often in TV shows - the so-called 'side' characters are more interesting than the 'main' characters and when the writers realise this, and realise who the audience loves more, they feature them more than the original leads - think Chuck & Blair in Gossip Girl, Karen & Jack in Will and Grace, Pacey in Dawson's Creek...

    I think if a side character is starting to be more interesting than your MC and you haven't written too much of your story yet, you can always change things around and make them the MC or at least feature them more. It's a shame to waste a charismatic character through inflexibility.

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  11. Scholars believe Shakespeare suffered from this as well. Romeo and Juliet is, most definitely, a love story. We know this to be so. However, it's generally agreed upon that the -only- reason it's a love story is because Shakespeare killed off Mercutio, who was stealing every scene he was in.
    I think the real question is how committed are you to the story you're writing? Are you writing the story, or are you writing about the characters? If you're writing the story, make youe characters behave. By what ever means necessary. Even if you have to kill them so they quit stealing the spotlight.

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  12. Love your post, Jess, and the reference to Pirates and Capt Jack. My youngest son and I saw the first movie 10 times before it came out on DVD; we loved it that much.

    I say that when a character keeps trying to take over and you're loving to write him/her, go for it. Your subconscious is telling you something.

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  13. As a few others have said, I'm a pantser. (I plot only when I have too many ideas in my head and I'm afraid my over-worked Mommy-brain will lose some of them.) So I'm not usually the one to crack a whip on a character that keeps poking his nose in my plan. That said, I sometimes worry if I'm using that pirate more often just because *I* like him, or because it makes sense in the plot. Hmmm.....

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  14. I think it depends on how far you are into your story, and whether the writing's going well or not. If the writing's going well and you love your story and you can keep him without destroying your story, or having to write extra thousands of words--no harm done. But if he's out to destroy what you've already done, off with his head!

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  15. I love that you used the word beastie in a post about Captain Jack. That's awesome. I think you should keep your pirate and see where it goes. You can always put him in the brig later.

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  16. I both love and hate when a character takes over like that. I love it because usually the first MC I choose is nothing more than a lens and very lackluster. I hate it though because it means a lot of rewriting. lol!

    Great post, Jess! I love how you worked in Capt. Jack. Hugs!

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  17. Great analogy!

    I guess it must've happened to the Evermore Author. The little sister had a great voice. Then she got her own series, beginning with Evermore. It's like getting The Jeffersons from All in the Family.

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  18. Being a pantser, this doesn't bother me - it excites me! :D However, when I HAVE (on rare occasion) plotted out a storyline, it can be a real pain having to deal with rogue characters. LOL.

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  19. I have such a character in my current WIP. I had to hold him back to stop him from taking over.

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  20. Awesome post. I've had a character steal the show, so to speak. But he didn't really take over. He was outshining my MC so I killed him off. Later, when I realized I missed him so much, I brought him back. :)

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  21. Here I am reading this AWESOME post that I'm SOOOO excited about (and kind of wish I'd written) and whoa! Thanks for the link. :D Here's what I do when this happens, because one character IMMEDIATELY sprang to mind. I let him do his thing, but prodded my other characters to keep up. To match him. And I let him know that if he behaved, and that book ever saw the light of day, I'd let him star in book #2. ;D LOL Weird right? But it totally worked. I hope.

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  22. When that happened to me I told her to get out of the MC's way and gave her her own book. We'll see how that works out - someday.

    -Vicki

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  23. Ordinary Angels definitely has a story pirate! I think nearly all my reviewers who mentioned characters mentioned that they liked him more than the main male lead. He's just more exciting and dangerous!

    India Drummond

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