Wicked Wednesday – Character Surprises, Part I

Hey, readers! It’s August, and we’re talking characters this month. Getting into other people’s heads is our job, and it can be an unpredictable one. Some writers say their characters completely surprise them in the course of writing a book. Others say it’s their world, and their characters know to fall in line. So Wickeds, what do you think? Can characters surprise you? And if the answer is yes, next week we’ll talk about some of those surprises….

Barb: Stephen King says characters reveal themselves like photographs in developing solution–they get sharper, clearer, show depth and contrast, as you write. Certainly I know more about all my characters at the end of a first draft than I do at the beginning. Often I am learning during subsequent drafts as well. These aren’t surprises per se, because they’re organic to the character, but I often say to myself, “Oh, that’s why you behave that way,” or think that, or feel that. With series characters I think of it as finding out new things about old friends. The example I always use is a friend you’ve known for years who one day, out of blue says, “It was like that time I went on a date with Paul McCartney.” And you’re screaming, “Oh my gosh, HOW COULD I NOT KNOW THAT ABOUT YOU?” And your friend is all, “What? Nothing ever came of it. It’s never come up. You mean I never mentioned it?” That happens with series characters a lot.

Edith: I love being surprised by any aspect of my writing, and especially by my characters.  I’m working on a synopsis for a new piece and I thought I knew a new character – possibly the murderer – until she showed me a bruise on her arm and I realized her husband has been abusing her. Whoa! Puts a whole different slant on the story. Working twenty years ago on what ended up being A Tine to Live, a Tine to Die, my protag was at a dinner party. All of a sudden a woman fell off her chair unconscious onto the floor. I stared at her and wondered why. Heart attack? Stroke? Poison dart to the neck? Poison in her martini? I had to keep writing to find out.

Jessie: I am frequently surprised by the characters in my books and am always tickled pink when I look at the screen in front of me in astonishment. I think it may be a byproduct of flow state where creation feels effortless and thus surprisingly outside oneself but I’m happy to experience it whatever the cause. I outline my books, scene by scene and you would think that would eliminate such surprises but it doesn’t in the least. I may have planned to put Beryl and Edwina in a motorcar chatting about a suspect but I hadn’t planned on Beryl suddenly mentioning that she spent considerable time before the war in Russia or that Edwina has a penchant for western novels.

Sherry: I can’t imagine not being surprised by my characters. I know them, but I continue to discover more about them even as I’m writing the eighth book in the Sarah Winston Garage Sale mysteries. I’ve read about people who do detailed bios or interviews with their characters before they start writing. The concept intrigues me, but I’ve yet to do it.

Julie: When I first started writing, I kept getting the advice to do deep research on your character before you start, so I tried that. And then I’d get upset when they surprised me. Part of the magic of writing are the surprises, and for me they are usually character driven. I’m also finding characters surprise me from book to book, but I’ll save that story for next week.

Readers: Have you been surprised by any characters in your favorite series? Who and why? Leave us a comment below.

19 Thoughts

  1. The danger in too-well-plotted stories is that characters who do not surprise the reader can become robotic and what might have been meant to entertain becomes a didactic puppet piece.

  2. Well, in Sarah Atwell’s first book, Through a Glass, Deadly, the back door of the glassblowing studio opened and an Australian diamond miner walked in. I (we?) didn’t see him coming! But more to the point, in the sixth County Cork mystery, Many a Twist, I thought it was time to provide some backstory for the major characters, and explain whatever happened with Maura’s mother and why a guy like Mick was unattached well into his 30s and was working in a small pub in the country. I as the author knew some of the answers, but the readers didn’t–and I learned a few things myself while writing the book. That keeps the writing interesting for me, and I hope for the readers as well.

  3. When I’m reading, if it’s a series and I’ve gotten to know the character, they don’t usually surprise me very much. When I’m writing, the chsrscters surprise me all the time!

  4. I’ve watched some series on tv lately and am astonished when something fresh and new appears. That takes the show up a whole notch and often, I recommend it to others.

  5. I love the character surprises. . in my books and in others. My characters sometimes write their own lines–I’m just typing, taking dictation. I think–Wow! I wish I’d thought of that! Oh, I guess I did!

  6. I’m trying to think of a time I’ve been surprised by a character in a novel. By a twist in the plot, including who the killer is, yes. So that’s close. Maybe I’m just combining the two.

    To me, a great book has characters driving the plot. So twists in the plot come from surprises from character. Make sense?

  7. I love being surprised by an unexpected facet of a character as long as it “fits”. It also has the benefit of providing possibilities for future books!

  8. I love being surprised by a character. I think it’s more likely to happen later in a series as you’re just getting to know the character while reading the first book.

  9. I can’t think of specific characters that have surprised me, but event in the stories have often been a surprise. What I find utterly fascinating, though, is how so many authors say the characters surprise them and often have a mind of their own. It seems to happen regardless if the writer is a “plotter or a pantser.” As a reader I find that so interesting, that the writer is so immersed in the story and characters that they really do take on lives of their own.

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