Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Out of Character? When Characters Do the Unexpected, or Want To

When characters do the unexpected
Ever have an idea ignite to suddenly reveal a new dimension of a character or story? It could be the light at the tunnel's end or an oncoming train. Here's how to vet sudden inspiration.

As an editor, I get queries from writers saying they were suddenly inspired on how to fix a complex character or plot problem. While we hope they're right, it's best to begin with the premise that an idea is like a spark. It may take more than one to fire things up. Two common areas where inspiration can greatly help, or hinder, are the superficial character and the lackluster story. We'll start with the one-dimensional character.

First, it's common to have comparatively flat characters in a first draft, even of a nonfiction piece. After all, you're still getting to know these people and how to portray them. But then, while you're writing draft two, something unexpected happens. A character does something unscripted, or wants to. Do you let her? The answer, usually, is yes.

Some writers can follow the consequences of a character's unexpected action in their minds. Certainly, the imagination is a great place to start. To put this new facet of a character to the test, it's best to sketch out the scene. You'll have to edit it; you may even need to file it away for future use. But the exercise of writing what the action or the desire behind it reveals is invaluable.

Here's an example. A husband and wife are on the verge of divorce. The wife's mother has been instrumental in destroying the relationship, and the husband has said so for years. Just as the couple comes to grips with their plight, the wife's mother suicides, leaving a note confessing what she's done. The husband is tempted to say, "I told you so." He's that type. Instead, he's moved with compassion for his wife, though he's exhibited precious little of this trait before. Does the writer let him express his emotions? The answer is yes, not because it's expected in a situation like this, but because the husband's response is spontaneous and shows another side of him. The couple may still break up, but if they do, it won't be because of the clichéd "my husband is an ogre" rationale.

The great thing about this scene is that it not only reveals another aspect of the husband, it also advances plot. Two positive outcomes for the effort on one. Still, the important thing isn't just that the husband turns out not to be the brute he's been so far, but to consider why he showed compassion in this instance. What previously untapped aspect of his character and past prompted him to show such empathy? The writer may not use this bit of backstory overtly now, but it will inform her development of the husband, and she may choose to use some aspect of the husband's history later on.

Tip: Consider a story you're working on where a character has done something unexpected or wants to. Outline the past events that could have led to this action (backstory). Then, outline the consequences of his or her actions to see how they affect this character and others.

Visit next week to learn how to address the unexpected plot twist.


Unknown said...

Great post! It's so true. Characters can't grow unless you let them go. They need to leave the nest and go out on their own.

Unknown said...

The example on how to advance the plot via the unexpected reaction was so clarifying. And it enlightens what happens in true life too! Thank you, Adele.