Characters, Friends and the Element of Surprise

Another writer recently posed this question to a group I was in: “Do you know everything about your characters when you start writing?” For me, getting to know fictional characters is much like getting to know real people: You have an initial sense of who they are but may be surprised as you move past those early impressions.

We moved to a new city when my boys were young, and I was eager to make new friends, for myself as well as the kids. I met a woman whose children were similar ages to mine and made a point to chat with her when I saw her around our neighborhood. She was kind and pleasant, yet seemed standoffish somehow. I assumed she didn’t have time for a new friend and moved on. We came to know one another much later, and I discovered she was not aloof at all, just shy. How wrong I had been.

In my current novel-in-progress, I thought I knew all I needed to know about the brother of the protagonist. His role was simple: get the story underway and move to the background. But scene after scene, I found the dialogue and reactions to story events which tumbled out, were not what I expected. He was a loyal company man (as I intended), but not content with the status quo (unplanned). He wanted to do the right thing (as per outline) but seemed to have something to prove (unplanned). The more I wrote, the more he asserted himself. I started to think he might hijack the whole story, so had to rethink his role. After significant revision, he remains a supporting character but has a story arc of his own. Hopefully, the novel is better for it.

Not every writer indulges these creative whims. In an interview with the Paris Review in 1967, the author Vladimir Nabokov dismissed the idea saying, “My characters are Galley Slaves.” Nabokov ran a tight ship. (I imagine his son also rinsed out his lunch pail, without being reminded.)

Apparently, I don’t run a tight ship: with my children or my characters. I’ve spent four years with these imaginary people but am still understanding who they are and what they want. Sure, those surprises can wreak a little havoc when they don’t meld with a planned plot turn, but those discoveries also keep it interesting. Soon I will have to accept I know all I need to know and close the book, as it were. And that’s where real life and fiction diverge. With our friends, siblings, even our spouse, we don’t ever close the book, we carry on discovering. We can’t ever know everything about one another. What fun would that be?

Read the Paris Review interview with Vladimir Nabokov


2 thoughts on “Characters, Friends and the Element of Surprise”

  1. Hi!
    Interesting sentiment, though likely overly brief.
    Personally, it feels more like I have a character sheet in my head, and then I roleplay the characters through the plot of the game, but I imagine it is different for everyone.
    How does it feel when the characters exert themselves against what you planned?

    • Great question. For me it comes up when I am trying to write a scene I had previously outlined, and the words pertaining to a certain character just aren’t coming. It feels like I am forcing it. When I have that experience I pause to think about the character and what I have learned about them thus far. Maybe they don’t belong in that scene, or it’s someone else who makes the comment. Sometimes it means giving them a bigger role in the story, which is what has happened in my novel.


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