When Your Characters Surprise You…

When I write a novel, I never have an outline or a plot developed to start. Instead, I begin with a basic idea, or a concept, of the major situation/conflict/problem the characters confront. (This is one of the BEST tips about the writing craft I picked up from Stephen Kings’ “On Writing.”)

For example, the concept of “The Crimson League” was: What if in a kingdom where people had magic, a sorcerer-noble took over and ruled as a tyrant and there was a resistance group of rag-tag nobles and commoners trying to bring him down?

“The Magic Council”: What if a group of sorcerers kidnapped the king’s sons? What if the tyrant’s nephew returned from overseas to help rescue them and decided he wanted to take up his rightful place at court?

Having just these concepts, I don’t write first drafts from character sheets or something like that. I have a rough idea of who each character is as they enter the novel, but not usually much more than that, and many times, the characters turn out far differently than I first thought. In fact, there have been characters that really shocked me in a number of ways.

Some characters–like Kora, the protagonist of “The Crimson League”–proved far more resilient than I could ever have anticipated. She really impressed me a lot as I wrote the first draft. Other characters that have a gruff shell–like Ranler Voldrone, the League’s thief–surprised me with the depth of their devotion to the people they care about. That was a pleasant surprise, and really helped me to feel for him a lot before the novel ended. I didn’t foresee the twists and turns in Bendelof‘s journey of faith ahead of time, and her struggles make her so very human in my eyes!

I really think that, as a writer of fiction, the breakthrough moments when a character reveals the depths of his or her being to you for the first time is the best and most enjoyable part of the process. Quite honestly, it’s why I write. I’ve had characters die on me I never planned or wanted to kill–had to pace around the living room once in shock and grief, utterly distracted–and I’ve had characters survive because they were just stronger, or more clever, or more determined, than I first realized they were. Nothing beats those times when one of your own characters leaves you respecting and loving them even more than you did before while at the same time leaving you standing around like this:

What the HECK? Did she just DO that???

Sometimes a character you like disappoints you a bit, and that’s okay, because it shows they’re REAL. They aren’t perfect. None of us are. Perfect characters are uninteresting and ring really false and are no good for anything beyond fairy tales and children’s stories. They have a place there, and a worthy one, but beyond those genres, they’re a mark of horrible writing. I’d say if a major character, the one you’re most attached to, doesn’t do or feel something at least once or twice to disappoint you, you aren’t doing your job as an author.

Have you had a character you’re reading or writing about surprise you in a great way? Disappoint you in a way that rang really true? Teach you something deep about yourself? What do you think about the arguments in this post? I’d love to hear from you! Please do comment!

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5 responses to “When Your Characters Surprise You…

  1. I do have a general plot, character outline, etc. before I write a book and those that don’t, don’t. Even so, I have changed characters part-way through the books, as who they are continues to develop. Likewise, I’ve read books in which the characters disappointed or surprised me. Thankfully, being surprised by a character is usually a pleasure.

  2. Real people disappoint us. I guess it’s only fair that the characters do the same. We just can’t create only perfect characters.

  3. “Sometimes a character you like disappoints you a bit, and that’s okay, because it shows they’re REAL. They aren’t perfect.” This is really great! Every word in this whole post.
    I most definitely agree on the perfect characters argument. Perfect characters are boring. The more flaws a character has, the better, especially when they are supposed to be good, because this can make them grey at some point. And is there anything better than grey-shaded characters?

    I’ve had characters developing in a way that really surprised me. There was one character who was supposed to die, but she did not. Or could not. I had already written her death scene, and then she turned out to be of major importance for the rest of the plot. Unkillable 🙂 Another character literally chose to die, which disappointed me a lot. He was supposed to live, and he also was supposed to be a tragic hero. Now he’s… I don’t know if I can still call him heroic. Generally he is one of my most strong-minded characters ever. And there are some more characters who have “constructed” themselves. I tried to fix or change things in their biographies and mind-sets, and it didn’t work. They refused. Because they’re alive and real to me. And that’s what makes working with them so much fun.

    As for outlines and concepts, it depends. Sometimes it’s okay for me to just have a concept, but I tend to lose myself in plotlines that I cannot solve properly, or at least not in a way that satisfies me. As soon as I notice that the story gets too big and complicated, I need to do an outline. It can change in the course of writing, of course, but it’s nice to have a map.

    • It really is CRAZY how character choose their own fates and manipulate the heck out of us! They do it ALL the time too. I’m so glad you could relate to this post. Thanks for sharing your experiences. Your characters sound like a blast. I love tragic heroes/figures.

      I can’t say I’ve had a character refuse to die on me: yet. There have been a few I have fought to save, though 🙂

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