How a Character Surprised Me (And What I Learned About Myself)

One of the neat things about writing—at least for me—is the people I work with. The characters.

I may like them, hate them, or just not understand them, but sooner or later, most of them do things that surprise me.

And that’s another one of the neat things about writing. Especially writing fiction.

If you follow this blog at all, you know I’m hosting a February writing challenge. I needed motivation to get back into writing after months of idleness and challenging myself to write one fifteen-minute timed writing seemed like a good way to get those flabby writing muscles back into shape.

I also wanted to start working on a novel, with each timed writing adding to the manuscript.

So far, that’s proven to be a good plan. Not perfect by any stretch—what is?—but useful.

And pretty routine.

Until the morning of February 5.

How A Character Surprised Me

That morning, I awakened with ideas that could have been my waking imagination or dreams. Several things seemed to be taking place and they seemed to involve my lead character and the girl of his dreams.

As so often happens, I didn’t remember most of them long enough to write them down, but I did remember one thing very clearly.

“You’re nothing but a parasite!” she shouted. Then tears begin to fall and she bolts from the room.

That was the first line in the morning’s timed writing and I ended up writing 600 words or more on that scene.

But that’s been pretty standard for this challenge.

From a Character’s Soul

Brass Key in Wood DoorIt was in the writing that followed the timed writing, as I continued to experience what the lead character thought and how he responded, that the wondrous thing happened.

I learned a deeply guarded secret. It unfolded as I wrote the words. It was one of the things he wanted to forget and had spent his life running from. Discovering that secret led to discovery of an even deeper, darker secret. A confluence of events that collapsed every safety net and prop he’d built around himself.

The result? He was reduced to a puddle of self-doubt, recrimination, and raw emotion.

I know.

I was there.

The experience also fulfilled some foreshadowing from the first chapter. Little did I know when I wrote those words at the beginning of the week how soon I’d know what they meant. Or how deeply they influenced this character’s decision-making, lifestyle choices, and behavior patterns.

What Makes This So Special

What makes this so special for me is that I’ve been trying with moderate diligence to get a handle on this character’s deep, dark secret since he first appeared on my radar several years ago. He’s visited nearly a dozen stories and encountered a number of my other characters as I looked for his story. Nothing seemed to fit.

Even after I found the right story in January, I didn’t know his deep, dark secret. None of my usual methods worked. I hadn’t yet tried my 100 question interview because I didn’t think it would work this time. This particular character tells people what they want to hear. Usually, that is not the same thing as the truth.

What I discovered the morning of February 5 was that he had to come to me—I had to get into his skin—and then he had to be hit in the gut with the key that unlocked the doors to all his secrets.

Or at least the two darkest ones.

Once that happened, all I had to do was observe and type.

What I Learned About Myself

Brass Key and LettersIt didn’t hurt that I’d recently experienced a situation in which something unpleasant about myself was revealed.  The circumstances were not nearly the same, but the moment of realization was. That experience provided groundwork—a tangible link—to what someone else might do, say, or feel under similar circumstances.

The moral of this story is that characters will sometimes surprise you. At least the really good ones will. They’ll resist your efforts to get to know them. They’ll side step you, avoid you, maybe even mock you.

But sooner or later, they will reveal themselves. Hang around with them long enough and they won’t be able to keep those things hidden.

And that gives me hope for certain other characters who have stubbornly resisted my every attempt to understand them.

It should give you hope, too.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *