Yesterday at Whatever, John Scalzi mentioned the concept of “narrative usurpation” – essentially theft of a narrative line by a minor character who decides to come on the scene and steal the show. In his words, “characters who show up in a story and are so entertaining that you forget whatever else is supposed to be going on and just pay attention to them instead.”
From an editor’s perspective, these characters must be leashed, or they run off with what promised to be an interesting tale. From a writer’s perspective, they’re both blessing and curse. On the one hand, I love the vibrant, scene-stealing supporting act. They’re fun to write and even more fun to chase offstage (again and again and again). But if you can’t get a leash on them, they definitely cause trouble.
Every manuscript I’ve written has such a character. Ironically, I didn’t plan for a single one of them. They just showed up on stage at one point or another, grabbed the proverbial brass ring and ran away, laughing at the top of their lungs. At this point, I expect them. In the end, they always add something positive to the story, as long as they agree to behave themselves in revision.
I’ve learned not to squash them too quickly, however. In one story, the scene-stealer ended up with a much more important role than I anticipated at the time. After that, I’ve learned to let them run amok in the early drafts. Like toddlers, they tend to behave better if you let them run the energy off.
Now I’m asking you: Writers, do you find scene-stealing characters creeping into your works? What, if anything, do you do about them? And readers: do you like or dislike these characters? Do they endear themselves to you or just annoy?
Can’t wait to hear your thoughts.