Characters can surprise a writer

Dickens with Light BulbThe writers’ group I am in met yesterday and we had a notable conversation about characters. After we reviewed Phil’s latest chapter, Tammy asked him, “Is your character going to do X?” Phil’s answer, “I have no idea.” He then shared how this particular character had already stepped off the path he’d so carefully calculated for her. He honestly admitted he wasn’t sure where she would end up.

Non-writers may have a hard time understanding this but it happens to writers all the time. We may create characters from our imagination, but they then live in our heads in an oddly independent way. Phil’s character was initially a minor “background” figure with no significant effect on the plot. She decided to change that, and Phil’s story is all the better for it.

The same thing happened to me while writing both of my novels. In my first novel, The Case of a Cold Trail and a Hot Musket, one antagonist did something that I would never have believed could come out of my imagination. I was shocked at the intensity of what I found myself writing but also realized the character HAD to be that nasty in order to create a powerful reaction in the reader. In my latest novel, Born Rich, two previously minor characters ended up professing their love and commitment to one another and their relationship ended up changing their importance in the story. When I created them they weren’t even going to be moving in the same sphere, let alone be an “item,” but the exchanged “I love you” lines were out of my fingers and onto the screen before I even realized consciously what was happening. I was as surprised as any reader. And just as with Phil’s story, mine also was richer and more complex because of that change.

DoppelgangerSo where do these “my character took over” moments come from? Do writers have a sort of odd multiple personality going on, where characters develop independent aspects that are really splinters of the writer’s personality? Does each writer have a doppelgänger in a parallel universe that pops in now and then to implant alternative ideas? Is a writer’s subconscious chewing through plot elements even as the writer is consciously trying to follow an initial plan or outline, and the subconscious “pops in” to force a needed change that the conscious mind is ignoring? Of course I fully suspect the latter, in spite of knowing a few writer’s with rather… diverse personalities. Although the idea of a doppelgänger is both cool and creepy.

Regardless of where these unexpected character shifts come from, most of the writers I know are delighted when they happen. The surprise twists create richer, more well-rounded, and usually more realistic characters, which ultimately makes the entire novel better. Every writer knows it can be challenging to create a new world or place (or re-imagine an existing one) and populate it with interesting characters while still following a complex plot that includes both valid foreshadowing and clever, believable red herrings. As American journalist Gene Fowler (March 8, 1890 – July 2, 1960) said, “Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”

If a novel is part of a series, especially the first of the series, complex characters make it much easier to carry them into sequels. One-dimensional characters run out of steam pretty quickly. Complex characters are also more useful and versatile, even if that complexity seems to come out of nowhere and end up on the page. I recently attended a talk about how to keep an eye out for complex secondary characters that might make for interesting primary characters in a spin-off book. The speaker gave suggestions on creating multi-dimensional characters, especially those normally relegated to the background, so they are ultimately more useful to the writer.

Imagine a series of books featuring Dr. Watson instead of his continued presence as Sherlock Holmes’ “sidekick” and biographer. For all his appearances in books featuring Sherlock Holmes, Watson is still not a very complex character. Could he be spun off? Probably not without some enhancing. (Apologies to any hardcore fans of Sherlock Holmes if you believe I’m mis-informed; I did research before writing the previous comments and I stand by what is just my personal opinion.)

Could my unexpected lovers in Born Rich end up with more prominent roles in book 2? They could now, yes, and likely will. Before their unexpected relationship popped up? Not likely. But this quirk of characters unexpectedly rewriting themselves is both a blessing and a curse. I’m always delighted when a character suddenly becomes more than I’d imagined. But it can also require some rewriting to make the sudden change not so, well… sudden, at least not for the reader.

I hope other writers who are reading this find themselves smiling and nodding. And to everyone who enjoys reading, I hope that next time you read a unique twist on a character that comes as a delightful surprise it makes you smile. It might just have been a delightful surprise to the author, too.


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