Surprising Characters

by David Belt copyright 2013

My favorite moments in books are when character do things I don’t expect. It is often the long play of events, late in the book, in which a plot twist changes the course of the adventure. Maybe a villain is revealed in the ranks of the heroes, or a villain grows a conscience over a particularly distasteful act. I often applaud the works of writers when these delightful surprises arise, but the more I write the more I realize that many of the surprises I so enjoy are not planned by the writers.

Some of the most amazing character surprises I’ve had lately have come from my own characters. The more I write the more my characters seem to take on a life of their own. At times, I feel less like a writer, dictating the action, and more like an editor, reading about my characters exploits.

When this first happened to me, I was rather annoyed that my characters weren’t doing what I wanted. As this trend periodically continued, I learned to tolerate the characters’ arrant behavior and eventually enjoyed the opportunities they have taken to surprise me. It’s been a strange journey, but I’ve learned to trust my characters, so I give them a little more free reign in their actions and enjoy reading the surprises.

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2 thoughts on “Surprising Characters

  1. John Mierau describes his writing process much like a physics experiment: building solid characters, placing them an environment that engages their fears and desires, and then turning them loose and observing (writing down) how they collide and interact. That’s a bit more organic that I’ve dared to attempt, but I can see it being a marvelous exercise.

    I’ve experienced the same “awaking” of a character as you describe, often with secondary characters I hadn’t put as much work into. Their surprising choices aren’t born of conscious thought, which implies that our story craft involves a lot more than just our rational mind… that every level of our awareness is engaged.

    How long have your characters been “talking back” at you? Do you remember the first one?

    • I allowed my characters to start talking back to me after a bit of writer’s block. I was trying to write a scene, and it just wasn’t working for me. I realized I was trying to make the characters do what I wanted instead of what they wanted. Eventually, I gave up and let the characters take over the scene. Since then, it has been working pretty well. I have a basic outline that gets the characters from point A to B, but after they arrive, I pretty much let them decide what they want to do. By providing opportunities for the characters to pursue their own desires, I create more realistic characters.

      For example, I present a character with an affinity for magic in a setting with a venerable mage. The character takes over and naturally asks the mage for a lesson, but in his clumsy nature the character accidentally breaks the old mage’s wand and gets kicked out of not only the village, but the entire forest. The character now has to deal with not only the loss of the potentially invaluable knowledge, but the guilt over his offense, as well. The reader gains plot and character development, and all I did was set the stage and let them loose.

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