Over the years, I’ve heard many authors describe their books as having come into being by some variation of this: “A character appeared and I followed.”
Once upon a time, I found such explanations slightly frustrating: I had always longed to write a novel, and I even had the basic idea for a mystery in mind, but no characters were manifesting themselves and beckoning to me.
So I wrote other things—poems, short stories, and essays—but the novel was always The Dream. Cut to fifteen years later and a now-or-never moment that compelled me to finally sketch out an academic mystery. And one minute into outlining, I knew the entire English department. Professors appeared as if summoned, one right after the next, complete with names, appearances, specialties, and quirks. All those years of contemplating the premise had apparently lined them up like a scholarly football team ready to take the field at the slightest opportunity. I spent much time developing them further—sorting out histories, motivations, and purposes within the plot. Eventually they seemed so alive to me that, when I was deep in the drafting zone, writing their interactions was indeed akin to watching a film on some sort of invisible screening device or authorial inner eye.
Until two characters rebelled against the script.
About halfway through the book, after I’d written a section of dialogue, my spidey sense tingled: that’s not right. I tried a few more times to push the conversation forward, and the same thing happened. Baffled, I frowned at the blinking cursor. Clearly, they didn’t want to say what I wanted them to say.
My initial response was something along the lines of I’m in charge, remember? We have an outline, people, and we have places to get to! But we had come to a halt. So I veered into experiment mode, writing the opposite of what I had planned. Suddenly, the scene began to flow, the dialogue sparked, and there was an infusion of vibrancy all around. Plus, I realized that this particular conversation was now crucially important to the mystery, and it was better the way my characters wanted it. Ultimately, this changed the entire plot. And I discovered that there’s a powerful exhilaration that comes from letting go, trusting the characters, and ending up somewhere you didn’t know you were going.
As a writer, how have you been surprised by your characters? Or, as a reader, how has a character surprised you?