Paula looks at how our characters can surprise us.
Recently I had a conversation
on Facebook with several writers who all said how much they loved the moments
when their characters said or did something that surprised them. We decided
that non-writers probably wouldn’t understand this – and might even think we
are insane, listening to the voices in our heads!
However, I think it happens
to every writer – not all the time, but certainly more so as we get to know our
characters. We can be writing (or typing) away and suddenly a character says
something, and we stop and think (or even say out loud), ‘Wow, I didn’t expect
that’ or ‘Oh, I hadn’t realised that.’
I’m not sure just what causes
this phenomenon. Maybe it’s something buried somewhere in our subconscious that
only comes to the fore when we give free rein to our characters.
My very first experience of
this was with my first novel, back in the 1960s. When I was writing the story,
I realised the heroine’s ex-boyfriend also deserved a happy ending, and decided
to go back and drop some small hints indicating he had met someone while he was
working in New York. I found, to my amazement, that I didn’t have to insert
anything into the story. The hints were there, not necessarily in what he said,
but more in what he didn’t say.
A similar thing happened when
I was writing ‘His Leading Lady’. I needed someone else to show an interest in
Jess, the heroine, but wondered how and where I was going to bring in a new character.
Then I realised I didn’t need a new character. The other man had been mentioned a couple of times, so he was already
there in the background, waiting for me to bring him to the forefront.
Sometimes a new character
pops up unexpectedly. In ‘Her Only Option’, Ross tells Neve
that he always uses the same boat when he crosses the Nile at Luxor, and refers
to the boatman as ‘Elvis’ because he always sings Elvis songs. I still remember
doing a double-take at what I’d written, and saying, “Where on earth did he
come from?’ In fact, my Elvis-singing Nile boatman was going to play an
important role in the later part of the story, so it was almost as if he had
been patiently waiting for me to find him because he knew I’d need him later!
Another example occurred in ‘Irish
Inheritance’. I had no idea how I was going to end a particular
chapter, but knew the ending needed to add another strand to the story. I
reached the point where the hero receives a phone call from the lawyer he’d met
in Dublin, but I didn’t know what the lawyer was going to say - until he said
it. He even gave me the name of the new character, without me having to look up
a suitable Irish name. Again this character was going to play an important role
later in the story.
Sometimes these subconscious
prompts may not lead to any major development of the story, but can still add
layers to your characters. In a sense, I get to know my characters as I write
them, just as you get to know people in real life. I didn’t know one of my heroines
was brought up on a farm until she ‘told’ me, and another revealed her phobia
of hospitals. That’s why I could never write a ‘character analysis’ before I
start a story. I wait for my characters to tell me more about themselves.
In that sense, I can relate
to something C.S. Lewis once said: “I never exactly made a book. It's rather
like taking dictation. I was given things to say.” (and thanks to my friend
Joyce for giving me that quote)
What’s the biggest surprise one your
characters has given you? Or what character ‘invented’ themselves out of the
blue for you?