Thursday, February 25, 2010

When a Character Surprises You. Good thing or Bad?

So, despite my moaning about the dreaded middle of the book slog I've been going through, I have been moving on it. Slowly, painfully, but definitely moving. And while I've been considering the intricacies of plot and pacing (I've been writing notes to myself like Need something to happen here! Or Talking heads! Talking heads! Action required!)I haven't been overly-stressing about my characters. By this point in the story - approximately 35,000 words in more or less (Hey, I write the crappy first draft in long-hand and have only typed in about 15,000 words on the computer so far so cut me some slack on not knowing how many exact words I've got right now) I'm pretty comfortable with who my characters are as personalities, their motivations and their particular strengths and weaknesses so they kind of write themselves. But yesterday, as I finally hit a major plot point that will drive the book into the third Act, one of my characters pulled something so unexpected I had to stop writing and say, "Whoa, really?"

But when I thought about it, when I considered her character, where she came from, what she'd gone through in the years before the reader even sees her on the page it was totally believeable. But I had no idea she was going to do that. When I'd thought about that scene, I had it worked out a certain way in terms of how my hero was going to manipulate her into a particular situation. But my heroine, as I guess I subconsiously knew, would not let herself be manipulated. Turns out she wanted to take matters into her own hands and try and turn the tables on him - with a pretty gutsy move. So when she did that I had to sit back and think, "Does this unexpected action change my plot in any significant way? If it does is it for the better or worse? Or, if it doesn't, is this action there to reveal a side of her character that I kind of knew but the reader - and the hero - had no idea about?" And if it was more of a character reveal than a plot changing moment do I keep it or write it out so that the original plot line moved the way I had originally planned it? So many, many questions. What's a writer to do?

I ended up keeping the unexpected event because not only is it a great character reveal, it is also a dramatic, unexpected plot twist and my hero is going to have to respond - and adapt - his original plans to accommodate that change.

But this whole thing made me think about those unexpected surprises that characters throw at you and whether they are a good thing for a novel or if it just means you just don't know your characters well enough yet to be writing the story. Personally, I like surprises. It keeps a story fresh to me. And if a story is fresh to me, the writer, then surely it will be even more surprising and unexpected to the reader. But it can be dangerous. If I didn't have a handle on my character, if I didn't know her backstory and what she wants to accomplish then all I'd have was a "Weird. Where did that come from?" response from a reader. There's also the tricky balance of hinting at the potential of her doing something like that early on in the story but keeping her true self hidden long enough (in this case not only from the reader but from the hero) to make this a nifty kind of "Wow! I can't believe she did that" followed quickly by a "Yes. That is totally what she would do in this situation."

Some people write with every plot element carefully lined up, characters completely lock in step with the action they planned and what they need to do to get from Plot point A to plot point B. I envy them that kind of control and planning. For me, I need a general direction, I need a goal and I need interesting, charismatic characters. If they want to throw me a curve ball once in a while I'm game. But I always reserve the right to go back and beat those characters actions into shape if they get too crazy on me.


  1. I love this post! I'm so glad I'm not the only one that writes this way. My characters can be very insistent. And when they are, it usually means that for the story to work, I need to let them speak and act as they must.
    I am horrible at outlining. Yes I have a general idea, I know my characters well and I keep notes. But it's precisely those wonderful surprises that make it so much fun and ultimately (in my opinion) a better book.

  2. Hi Lisa! Thanks and glad I'm not the only one this happens to!

  3. Hey Nelsa! As you know, I totally believe in following this kind of development. This is your character truly coming to life and asserting herself... what a cool and amazing thing! Excited to see where the plot goes (if you'll eveer let me read the thing! Come on, I need a Nelsa story fix!)

  4. Hi Stephanie - yes, I'm with you on going with the flow of the character. As for reading it, oh, boy, if I ever finish it you know you'll be the first to see the thing (and it will still be a thing!)