Thursday, October 21, 2010

When Characters Surprise You

What makes The Wizard of Oz so great? Sure, okay, many things. But one thing you’ll never forget is the diverse characters. The lion. Tin man. Scarecrow. The Wicked Witch. Glinda. The Munchkins. And the Wizard. Does it get any better than that?

And what did they do to Dorothy along the way?

They surprised her.

So what do you do when you’re writing a pre-plotted novel and, as your tapping away on the Yellow Brick Road, you bump into something or someone unexpected?

How do you continue when one of your characters throws you off guard?

You have several choices.

You can…

Let it flowI’ve read dozens of books on the craft that espouse this strategy. Some of these sound familiar? Don’t censor yourself. Write fast. Write hot. Shut out the internal editor while writing the first draft. You can simply go with the change. Invite the new character along in the adventure. Capture every detail of the new change. Let. It. Flow.

InvestigateYou can put on your Sherlock Holmes hat and try to figure out where the heck this character or unexpected change came from. The Wicked Witch flew on her broomstick from the West. But why is this important? It becomes important when Dorothy’s house lands on her sister, The Wicked Witch of the East. Dorothy created a new enemy. Is your new character an antagonist? Protagonist? How are they impacting your MC’s plight toward reaching their goal?
Is there an identifiable reason why your MC has suddenly become obstinate?

Track Point of Change—the Before & AfterOften we plunk down a scene wrought with conflict when we’ve reached a sagging middle. And sometimes this works. Sometimes it doesn’t. It helps to identify the before and after of the change. How you set the scene before and after matters as much as what happens during the change.

Check ConsistenciesDorothy never threw up her hands and fell back on that field of poppies saying, “I like it here. I think I’ll stay here forever. How ‘bout it, motley crew of creatures. You with me?” Nope. (Technically they all passed out for a bit.) Dorothy longed for home. This theme was consistent throughout the movie. It’s important when we allow change to enter our work that we make sure it doesn’t stray too much from the core of our characters and their goals.

Ask if You Can Find Meaning and Purpose in the ChangeEach of the characters introduced in The Wizard of Oz helped Dorothy to understand her ultimate mission. When one of your characters starts acting unpredictably, you need evaluate whether or not there’s a legitimate purpose for the diversion? Go with it if the change doesn’t mess with the entire story arc.

It’s wise to detect the motive for change. Yours first. Were you getting bored with the plot? Did your story need a new character? How about your character’s intentions—is it a realistic change the plot can hold weight under? Before you hop off on this exciting rabbit trail, taking the entire project in a new direction, assess whether it will strengthen your work or loosen it like a piece of unraveling thread.

It’s been said no one likes change. But this isn’t the case in fiction. We can embrace change when it jumps out at us from the forest. But it’s valuable to take a moment to understand what kind of change we’re dealing with and how it’ll impact our story.

So, go for it. Let change reign. But remember sometimes there really is no place like home.

Ever bump up against an unexpected change while writing a novel? If so, what did you do?

*photos from flickr


Julia M. Reffner said...

Oohh...I like this, Wendy. Great post! I've been thinking about my characters this morning as I was listening to Dave Lambert on the CBA vs. ABA discussing the fact that one of the main differences is that (and of course, there are exceptions) CBA books tend to espouse: 1) message 2) plot and THEN 3) theme. Whereas in the ABA, the order is the reverse. Authors I've admired in the secular market, such as Elizabeth Berg and Anne Tyler are very character-driven. So anyway, I've been thinking about techniques to strengthen my character building.

I tend to let it flow if it is consistent for the character, but I also do some investigation. What are the other possible options? Does what they've done really make the most sense given the circumstances?

Julia M. Reffner said...

I think some authors that do character development well are: Mary DeMuth, Lisa Samson, Alice Wisler...and I know that there are more that aren't coming to mind...

Krista Phillips said...

I love how we are all diverse. Personally, give me a PLOT oriented book ANY day. I guess that's why I like romance. You're almost always guaranteed a plot, and hopefully a good one.

I TOTALLY agree. Soemtimes I allow myself to write down a rabbit trail just for a little bit to see wehre it is going. Sometimes it surprises me and ends up being this GREAT new subplot that supports my main plot.

Then again, sometimes I have to hit the delete key repeatedly after that!

But... I'm a major SOTP writer. Sometimes the REAL plot doesn't even come to me until I'm 1/4 of the way through the book (requiring a TON of editing!)

I know... all you plotters out there just cringed:-)

Cindy R. Wilson said...

Interesting post, Wendy. This is always such a strange question for me to answer. Because I plot so extensively, not much happens in my story that I didn't know about. At least not as far as big events.

It's those little conversations that can surprise me. Those small actions by one character or another that wasn't in my outline. And when that happens, I almost always go with it. Because by that time I feel I know the characters better and I know what they need to grow and reach where they need to be at the end of the story. Rarely there are times where I've had to add an extra scene or chapter that I hadn't already planned but it still feels natural--and again, I get to that point with the realization that the character needs just a little more to grow and change.

Casey said...

Usually what I try to do (or what I did on my last story) is if when I sat to write, what did I want to accomplish? And would it be interesting for me to read, but more importantly would it be climatic enough to push characters forward or add tension? Every day I tried to think of something new to add tension or move my characters toward the black moment and I think that is what kept me writing and the story was growing stale.

I liked what you said about not just letting our characters flop back into a field of flowers and be satisifed. They should never be satisifed until the goal from the beginning has been reached.

Great first post, Wendy. I enjoyed it. :)

Wendy Paine Miller said...

Julia, So fascinating what Dave said. I'm still thinking about it. I write women's fiction so it tends to be mostly about the characters for me. But I make sure I work with a unique plot and a compelling story. Sometimes my message and my theme reveal themselves to me as I'm writing.

Krista, I consider myself on the fence between SOTP and plotter. I also believe in having a strong plot. My characters are stubborn though. They want most of my attention. But I make sure they don't flounder w/out evoking a rich story.

Cindy, Oh I like that. The small things added such impact. What's happening to me right now (I'm 12K in) is I'm realizing one character is going to become a lot more important than I'd originally planned for her to be. So I'm gathering more information on her. It surprised me. A good surprise. But now I'm playing with consistencies and if it works w/ the story arc, etc.

Casey, Love that question--would it be climatic enough or add tension. Nice test. Thanks for the encouragement.

I find I learn about my characters during the entire first draft and even additional drafts. This happens even with a notebook near full of their qualities, quirks, etc.

Love this discussion!
~ Wendy

Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

Excellent post! I haven't written all that much yet, so I can't comment intelligently about those kinds of surprises in writing. I was a Panster for my first manuscript, but am plotting away at this next one. I will see what comes out of that and whether or not anything just pops into my story!

Mary Vee Storyteller said...

I guess I hadn't thought about the fact that Dorothy didn't comment about the field of poppies or the wizard's palace or.... The story simply flowed and didn't call attention to the fact that the obvious wasn't stated.
Hmmmm another lesson learned.
Thanks Wendy:)

Sarah Forgrave said...

Great post, Wendy!!! I'm a tried-and-true plotter, but I have had some surprises along the way. Like Cindy, most of mine are on a smaller scale, but some of my minor characters have taken a more prominent role than I originally planned. I like how you said we may want to run with it or reign it in. I've always thought it's best to let the characters direct, but you're right...sometimes it doesn't make sense with the story.

Keli Gwyn said...

So nice to see your post here at TWA, Wendy. You done good!! (No surprise there. =)

I used to get excited about those times when my characters surprised me and took the story in an unexpected direction, but these days I'm wary when that happens. After months of hard work on a massive rewrite, I ended up with a sagging middle, er, muddle, due in large part to the fact that my hero and heroine kept wanting me to bail them out of tough situations. I did what they wanted, and every time it reduced the conflict.

So, I've learned to be tough, tell them who's boss, and stick to the plot as planned. Lest you think me heartless, I'll let you in on a secret. I told them they had a HEA coming and that they'd appreciate it all the more because of how hard they worked to reach it. =)

Wendy Paine Miller said...

Sherrinda, Thanks. I'm excited now that I'm here, I'll be able to learn how that journey goes for you. Each novel has been a little unique for me with how much I plot.

Mary, I like how her goal was clear during the whole movie. I think that's what we need to do with our work, but do it so seamlessly it doesn't feel overly contrived. Tricky.

Sarah, I tend to let the characters direct more during the first draft than at any other point in the process. I'm apt to stick them back in their place during edits. But I love the free-flowing stuff that comes from those first drafts.

Keli, I need you around me at all times. You're available for that, right? :D You are such a wonderful encourager. I love that God has gifted you in that way! You've set such a great example of sticking with edits. I'm grateful for how you detailed your process on your blog.

I know what you mean about getting tougher with changes. There is certainly a time to push back.

Can't wait to read your book!

This was fun, ladies. I love all this writerly talk!
~ Wendy

Pepper said...

Great post, Wendy!
And great chatting with you today :-)
I had this very thing happen when I new character literally flew onto the page and right into the path of my heroine.
With that one - I went with the flow.

But there are so many times when I get to chapt 3 or 4 and have to step back. Evaluate my characters and where I'm going.

Lynda R Young as Elle Cardy said...

I'm forever coming up against unexpected change in my manuscripts. Sometimes I'll write up all the possible consequences of the change and if they are all still relevant to the story and workable then I'll go ahead. I do like this list though.

Dina Santorelli said...

Yes, and I love it -- it's the magic of writing. And I do all these things at one time or another. Great post!

Linda G. said...

Good post. :)

I'm a pantser, so my characters tend to surprise me a lot. Which is usually a good thing, but sometimes I do have to rein them in when they veer off the path too much.

Anne Lang Bundy said...

I really appreciated Keli's comment. But ...

I know where we're going to end. (Writing biblical fiction, I have little choice.) But I do like to let my characters take me there.

And I'd like to think this process mirrors what God does with us.