Thursday, March 24, 2016

The Joy of Character Serendipity in Writing

by Henry McLaughlin @RiverBendSagas

The Joy of Character Serendipity
I find myself in a bit of a transition in my writing right now. A while back, my weekly writing group challenged me to write a fantasy novel. (I love you, Solitary Scribes.) My agent at the time said I’d have to come up with a pen name because it’s such a genre switch. I’m thinking C.S. Tolkien might work. Or Tim Dekker. Or Johnny C. Jenkins.

Part of the challenge I set for myself—I really can’t blame my group for this—is to write it organically as Steven James calls it. So, yeah, he gets some of the blame/credit for this too.

For years, I practiced and preached using a detailed outline. I would spend weeks writing an outline before I ever typed “Chapter One.” Along with the outline would be days of detailed character development. Questionnaires, psychological profiles, interviews with the character, histories. Physical descriptions. As much detail as I could develop. I wanted to know these guys inside and out.

When I started organic writing, all this character detail didn’t seem as important. I knew my hero’s role, kind of knew what he looked like, knew his story goal. I had an idea of his internal core values and how they would conflict over the story. I was comfortable with him and he seemed comfortable with me. I knew more of him would be revealed as the story went along, more depth, more complexity.

As the story moves along, seeds are sprouting about a romantic relationship between my hero and heroine. Seems to have a good pace, good tension. The attraction is mutual but there are issues which threaten to keep them apart. Like he’s twenty years older than her and she’s religious and he hates religion in every form.

And then—feels like there should be dramatic music here—he meets a woman he hasn’t seen in eleven years. I knew she was in the story and they would reconnect. As he talks with her and I see her through his eyes (I’m also writing a first person POV for the first time), he gets all mushy. And I realize—he’s still in love with her. Very much in love with her.

I’ve never had a character throw this big a curveball at me. When I asked him about this, he shrugged. I asked what about him and the heroine and their relationship. He patted me on the shoulder and said, “You’ll figure it out.”

I can’t wait to see where this takes us.

What is the most surprising thing a character has done to you? How did you handle it?

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Henry’s debut novel, Journey to Riverbend, won the 2009 Operation First Novel contest. 

He serves as Associate Director of North Texas Christian Writers. 


Henry edits novels, leads critique groups, and teaches at conferences and workshops. He enjoys mentoring and coaching individual writers. 


Connect with Henry on his blogTwitter and Facebook.

14 comments:

  1. Henry, Thank you. This has opened my eyes to character development in fiction. I started my writing career less than 2 years ago. Non-Fiction was my focus until God gave me an idea for a fiction novel. I continue to educate myself in this genre. I think a good pen name would be H.M. Cloud I want to read your book when it is complete.

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    1. Thank you, Cherrilynn. I'm glad this article was helpful. I'll think about H.M. Cloud as a pen name. Maybe I'll put several names out there and let people vote.

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  2. I've recently dipped my toe in the fiction pool and don't yet have characters tapping me on the shoulder or keeping me up all night with conversations. I look toward to that day, I think. I have much to learn but am excited about the characters I'll meet along the way. Great blog.

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    1. Hi Sharron,
      You'll have fun getting to know your characters and the things they can do. Be ready for the journey they'll take you on. I firmly believe their serendipitous revelations make our stories more real and believable.

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  3. Late in a story, I discovered the person I thought had killed the victim, hadn't. Someone else did. Someone I didn't expect. :-)

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    1. That's awesome, Patricia. Isn't fun when our characters do that?

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  4. That's my favorite part of writing - when my characters throw me a curveball. The first time it happened, this character was the secondary protagonist. She was there to provide the MC with her heart's desire. But in one scene, while buying a car, a spark of romance develops between this doctor and the car salesman. Talk about unlikely! But I ran with it. Turned out to be right..

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    1. I'm with you, Ane. William Faulkner once said, It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does." Even if we don't use the rabbit trail our characters takes us on, we still learn so much more about the character. And that makes him more compelling and interesting.

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  5. In one of my unpublished historical novels (I hope to get it out there soon), a secondary character pretends to want to marry a girl, and then proceeds to mistreat her, so his older brother will come to her rescue and marry her. I didn't find any of this out until the very end of the book when he was having a conversation with his father. I had to go back in and add hints along the way, so my readers weren't as shocked as I was by his actions.

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    1. I'm with you, Ginger. When that's happened to me, I find the story is much more interesting.

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  6. The mystery and magic of the subconscious...figures things out for us, behind the scenes.

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    1. Good point, Linda. Although sometimes I think my characters prefer it when I'm unconscious.

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  7. Sir Henry,
    I'm in the middle of a Middle Eastern intrigue novel with a N. African female assassin. She's saved by a Croatian Mossad agent. He turns out to be a double agent. Whew. Gotta love Steven James.

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    1. Amen, Warren. I've learned so much from Steven.

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