The Surprise Character

Author Sandra Scoppettone had an experience writing the other day that I can certainly sympathize with:

I had my protagonist searching a
hotel room for clues to the missing man. She opened a wardrobe and the
body of a naked woman fell out.

I didn’t plan this at all.  It
happened.  I have no idea who she is or what she has to do with the
missing man case.  The woman falling out of the wardrobe was the way I
ended chapter two.

I’m 4 pages into chapter 4 and I still don’t
know anything about her.  The police have arrived now.  Don’t have any
idea where this is going to go.

Yes, it’s a bit scary not to
know, but it’s also what makes writing without an outline fun.  Maybe
tomorrow I’ll find out who she is.

I write with an outline, but this kind of thing still happens to me all the time. Well, it does when I’m writing books, not in television, where the outline is, to use a cliche, set in stone after it has been approved by the studio and network and distributed to key department heads for production purposes. But I digress..

I refer to my novel outlines as "living outlines," I keep revising them as I write to take into account these little surprises along the way or new ideas that occur to me.  I finish my outline around the same time I finish my books. 

The most troublesome, unexpected change I had to deal with was in my book MY GUN HAS BULLETS. I had a character, Eddie Planet, who was supposed to die very early on. But I fell in love with Eddie, and enjoyed writing him so much, that I kept putting off his death, until I finally accepted the fact that I couldn’t kill him. I was stuck with him for the whole book. Well, that threw my entire plot into disarray. It screwed up every plot turn. I spent the whole book trying to solve plot problems on-the-go.  But I think it was a much better book because I kept Eddie alive… and, in fact, I liked him so much, he became the central character in the sequel, BEYOND THE BEYOND.

I think it’s those surprise characters and unforeseen twists that make writing so exciting.  No matter how well you plot a story, the book always seems (to use another cliche) take on a life of its own.  Or, to use Sandra’s example:

The Surprise Character. I know who she is now. She was
identified by the detective’s client. This happened yesterday. I was
shocked to learn who she was. I ended chapter 5 with this revelation.

morning I woke early and before I went back to sleep I kept writing
opening lines of chapter 6 in my head. But I didn’t use any of them
when I went to work this morning.

Since chapter 5 ended with a
name I had to open chapter 6 with more information about who this
victim was. In learning this I’ve set myself a lot of new problems. I
still don’t know why she was found where she was or why she was
murdered. Needless to say, I don’t know who killed her…

…So what? That’s part of writing a novel. Any novel. Not only a mystery.
I think all good novels are mysteries to the author until they’re

Speaking of which, mine won’t be if I don’t spend less time this blog and more on my manuscript! I’m outta here. Enough procrastinating…



6 thoughts on “The Surprise Character”

  1. I love when that stuff happens. Last year, I started a short story about Nick Kepler trying to get rid of a car with a dead body in it. It turned into a long short, then a novella, then a novel. By the time I was done, Nick had sent a close friend to jail, had to deal with a supporting character’s murder, and was in an affair with a married woman by book’s end. And the woman in question wasn’t even supposed to be in the book. The book I originally intended to follow up the one I’ve got coming out next month has been bumped to another series altogether.

  2. Surprise, surprise. In a story that I was writing I had my main protag all written out, even a picture I drew hung on the wall. As I wrote the scene where he was exploring an island off the coast, I discovered the real protag of the story and I decided to make guy #1 disappear fast…… so much for planning.

  3. Yet I’ve read books where it was obvious the author was surprised by things like that and never recovered, and the plot wanders all over the place as a result.
    The secret is to rewrite as needed to these surprises seem part of the original to the reader. Not everyone does that.

  4. Mark,
    I could see how wandering away from the plot could be a big problem with some novels … but with others it’s part of the charm. One of the things I liked best about Douglas Adams’s crazy sci-fi novels(Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, etc.) is Adams’s willingness to go someplace else for a while and get back to the story eventually.

  5. That works better in those type of novels then it does in a mystery.
    I’m not saying that it never works in mysteries, it just often doesn’t make for as tightly written a mystery as you’d get otherwise. At least that’s the way it seems to me.

  6. In a “follow the clues to find out whodunnit” style mystery, I think you’re right, Mark. But in more character-driven work, I think there’s room to maneuver. If you’re interested enough in the character, you’ll follow wherever he leads. I’m thinking of James Crumley’s wonderful LAST GOOD KISS. The plot doesn’t exaclty bee-line us from the start of the novel to the end, and Crumley feels free to let the characters hang out a bit.


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