Sunday, January 6, 2013

Character Surprises

This is one of those posts that will sound somewhat hoity-toity to those who don't write very much.  They'll scoff and say, "You elitist snob, that's a load of self-congratulating bullshit."  However, most who visit this site are writers themselves, and they'll recognize this in an instant.
(What a pair of characters!)
The characters we write will take on a life of their own.  I never would've believed it had it not happened to me while writing, and amazingly enough, it took less than one novel for me to discover this truth that most writers have found.

In my very first completed work - On Freedom's Wings - I created a character named Shshashnara.  He was the Emperor of an alien species named the Fitharfia, and they were one of the chief adversaries faced by an Earth struggling to rebuild in the aftermath of a galactic war.  I'd intended for Shshashnara to be somewhat shallow and flat, a minor character in the overall plot.  However, as the story developed, he turned out to be much more cunning and creative than I originally thought.  He was always supposed to be diabolical, but the subtlety with which he pursued his goals and the intelligence he displayed startled me.  I began to take more of an interest in the character, and the creature that was supposed to be a minor plot device turned into a major player before I could stop him.

Every novel since has had something similar happen.  No, not all of the characters have developed in unexpected ways - in fact, most of them have generally turned out like I envisioned them when I began.  However, there has always been at least one character that went off in an unexpected direction and turned out to be deeper than I thought they would be.  In Akeldama, the character of Ethan, a replacement for a murdered character never intended to play a major part, turned out to have more honor and be more resourceful than most of the rest of the cast and was a major plot device near the end.  In Salvation Day, Mike Faulkner's lab assistant Gary went from sounding board that helped build compassion for the main character to a man of conscience whose love of family was something Mike ended up jealous of.  I never meant to explore the relationship between Christian Gettis and his dad in Wrongful Death, but his dad's sense of loss and Christian's witnessing of it helped the main character mature and understand how his life affected others.  Finally, in Canidae, the chief antagonist was meant to be a being of pure evil who was motivated only by vengeance, but he turned out to have several redeeming qualities regarding loyalty and duty, so I shifted the focus of evil from him and onto the back of the beast that I should have recognized as the main bad guy from the start.

This is the fun and spontaneous part of writing.  Bill Watterson, of Calvin and Hobbes fame, once said that he could never imagine a line in his strip without one of the characters saying it.  Suzy Derkins wouldn't say something that Hobbes would say, and a line intended for Calvin's mom never sounded authentic coming from his dad.  This sounded elitist to me until I started writing and found he was right.  My characters act in ways unique to them, and much like real people, they develop along totally spontaneous paths.  That is both the most amazing and most scary part of our imagination - that people we've met nowhere else but in our minds can act and think so independently.

However, without this level of independence, our stories would sound flat and unimaginative.  Look at any competent writer's work during a series, and you'll usually find several characters thought of as minor in the beginning to be much more fleshed out down the road(see Dudley Dursley from the Harry Potter series).  They grow as the story grows and end up having lives of their own, and it's one of the parts of writing that I look forward to the most.

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