Taming the Potential Breakout Character

And no, the title is not an allusion to Shakespeare’s play, The Taming of the Shrew. . . . Okay, perhaps subconsciously it is. But I’m thinking of a character in one of my works in progress. You see, when I wrote the first five or so chapters, I came away with the following equation in regard to this character:

Feisty (willing to shoot someone without thinking about it) + prone to adages = possibly more interesting than the main character

Do you see the problem? So, what is the solution? Give A more quirks and B less? Tried that. Didn’t work. The characters had to be who they are.

Hey, no problem, right, if this character turns out to be a breakout character—a secondary character whose role grows with his or her popularity? After all, who wouldn’t want to develop a character readers love and quote often? But I want readers to love my main character, to see her as more than a piece on a chessboard waiting to be moved out of the “breakout” character’s way.

When you think of a breakout character, who do you think of first? Han Solo? Captain Jack Sparrow? Arthur Fonzarelli (the Fonz in Happy Days)? Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer? The Cigarette Smoking Man from X-Files? I usually think of Han Solo. This could be because I’m watching Star Wars: The Clone Wars (season one) and the series creators sometimes refer to the original Star Wars movies. Han is the brash bad boy whose flaws are obvious and interesting.


But let’s get back to my story and the troublesome equation. The solution I came up with was to make B less active. This involved removing her for most of the story and having A’s journey be about finding B. In this way A can be more active and show what she’s made of.

I know what you’re thinking: Isn’t this still The B Show with the plot centering on B? Good question. During the draft phase, I asked myself these questions: What if A had to choose whether or not B lived or died? What if there was a compelling reason for B to die? Then I had something along the lines of (but not exactly like) the search for Walter Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, the 1979 movie directed and co-scripted by Francis Ford Coppola (an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness).


Though ordered on a mission to find and kill Colonel Kurtz (played by Marlon Brando), Captain Willard (played by Martin Sheen) has agency. He has to go through the rigors of the journey. But the power of choice—to kill or not—is still his.

And that’s what it’s all about, Charlie Brown—making sure each character is active, but not more than my main character. I had to make the hard choice to deactivate my potential breakout character to keep her from taking over the book like an overbearing person hogging a conversation. As the old saying goes, sometimes a little bit goes a long way. With B out of the way, I had room to go deeper with A, to plumb the depths of her soul as I shared her story.

Do you find yourself in this situation? What tips do you have for taming the breakout character? Who is your favorite breakout character in movies or television?

20 thoughts on “Taming the Potential Breakout Character

  1. Well Han Solo did monopolise whenever he appeared on screen with the other assorted good guys. I always wanted to be Han. Never a Jedi.
    And what about our favourite- Sarah Jane Smith? Escaped two powerful screen Doctors to get her own show. I better leave it at that- I will get all morose again like in our previous conversation!

    • Han seems to have more fun. Plus he had Chewbacca. How cool is that? Still, the light saber is a big draw toward the Jedi side. I wanted to be Sarah Jane Smith–the intrepid heroine traveling with the Doctor, and especially in her own show. She will be missed.

      • Sarah Jane will be.
        And I have always reckoned Chewbacca had tourettes.
        He was the only non-English speaking alien that wasn’t given subtitles.
        Oh-and R2. The foul mouthed little droid.

      • Actually, I’m quite partial to R2. You know, I was thinking just now about the Droids versus the Daleks. Who would win? I probably need to get out of the house more. 🙂

      • Daleks definitely.
        and emoticons can actually be race back to the 19th century.
        Okay, okay,I looked it up!

  2. Linda – as you know, I’m also dealing with a walk-on character whose strong personality threatens to overcome my MC. What I’m most interested in is how and why my secondary characters often develop more interesting traits that my MCs. Amanda Jenkins said that it’s not uncommon and she attributed it to the author being more careful with the MC, while we feel more free with the secondary characters. If they are wacky or unlikable, it’s not as big a risk. What do you think?

    • Laura, excellent question, and that is a point Amanda challenged me about, especially in regard to not allowing my character to be hurt or to make mistakes. She told me to pay attention to how the secondary characters reacted to the main character. If everyone likes my main character, I have created a Mary Sue. I also have too much of my own agenda in shaping that character. After all, who doesn’t wish to be liked? I want my main character to be liked, right? But I’m not allowing that character to be real. I’m not digging deep enough into the character’s psyche.

      So, to answer your question (if indeed I’m making any sense), yes, I think we strive to create “likable” characters. But when I read Three Times Lucky, I realized that Mo isn’t always likable. She makes some boneheaded decisions. But good grief! What a character! I don’t think there’s anyone more interesting than her in that book. Yet there are no uninteresting characters.

      • I like the idea of focusing on the how the secondary characters relate to the MC. Likability and protecting characters is definitely an issue for me and for a lot of new writers, I think. But I also think that maybe some of the issue is that if we are writing in first person or close third, the narrator doesn’t likely see herself as particularly charismatic. It’s easier to see *other* characters as charismatic *through* the MCs eyes, you know? I think that becomes a matter of voice, on some level.

      • Good point, Laura. And that’s the issue, isn’t it? How the main character seems herself or himself. That’s what makes Keir so fascinating in Inexcusable (Chris Lynch). And even if the character doesn’t believe herself to be anything special, we can’t help seeing her that way (ala Mo in Three Times Lucky).

  3. This is really interesting, Linda! It makes me think of John Green’s LOOKING FOR ALASKA and PAPER TOWNS, in which the female love interests/objects of the main characters’ obsessions are so charismatic and fascinating. Maybe it’s no wonder that both Alaska and Margo are off-stage for a lot of the stories. My eighth grade students read PAPER TOWNS, and we had some interesting conversations about whether or not Quentin, the main character, was a likable narrator. Some of them talked about how he wasn’t as interesting as Margo, but they also weren’t sure how effective it would be to have her narrate the story. (P.S. I thought I already followed your blog, but apparently I had not successfully signed up until now. Look at all these great posts I’ve missed!)

    • Thanks for commenting, Laurie (and for following :-)). And I see what you mean about Quentin. Yes, John’s main characters sometimes have that Nick Carraway thing where they pale next to the character who lives large (like Gatsby). And that’s cool in that everyman sense. After all, readers can identify with those characters. Through these characters, we observe these almost “mythic” characters. But I didn’t want to spend hundreds of pages with a character who simply observes other more “interesting” characters. Good point though, on how a story would change if that “more interesing” character narrated. Now I’m trying to think of a book that has that sort of narrator.

    • Interesting idea. Character C is actually the star of the sequel. He’s my diamond in the rough, whom I posted about. I’m still trying to figure out B’s part in the saga. But thanks for asking!

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