I often hear writers say that you should allow your character to surprise you, or let your characters think for themselves. When I was first starting out, I had no clue what this meant. I remember thinking ‘how is a fictional character that lives inside my head going to surprise me?’
Little Surprises Lead to Realistic Characters
And then it happened. At first it started with little things. A character choosing to go left instead of right, or saying no instead of yes, things that helped move the story along while also sharing something about how the character thinks. And then it moved on to bigger things, like a character ending up in a room he most definitely did not belong in, making an appearance when, in fact, he was supposed to remain unseen until the very end. Tuesday, it went so far as a character creating an entire back story for another character through a memory she had that I never intended her to have. She created a connection different but better than the one I planned. So how does this happen?
Character Surprises are a Good Thing
When you are engrossed in your writing, things fall into place. You get in the zone and the story makes sense. Things you forgot to plan out beforehand jump out at you and they just happen. And this is a good thing. It helps your characters become real. No human is 1-dimensional. These surprises help move your character from 1-D to 3-D; they help make that character real.
Yesterday I discovered that my character has a fear of blood. Here’s what happened. I decided that the best way to create a sinister environment was to add in the scent of blood. This smell then triggered a memory in the MC and through that memory, I discovered that she has really bad associations with blood, having seen a man killed when she was only 6. Not only does this provide insight into both the character’s past and the nature of her world, but it also makes her a little vulnerable. People like characters that are a little vulnerable.
I’m sure there are many experienced writers who plan things out down to those tiny details before ever starting chapter 1. I’m not yet at that level. But if my characters keep speaking to me, keep throwing out little surprises, that’s OK with me. After all, doesn’t everyone love a good surprise?
Do your characters surprise you? Are there downfalls to this? Do you think this goes away when you become a more experienced writer?
For more on character’s thinking for themselves, check out this post from YA Highway