How Writers Write · In the Family

Writing Unpredictable Characters

Dear readers and writers,

I’ve been studying the topic of writing unpredictable characters lately, because I’m stuck on a section of my YA historical novel draft. I was really hoping to have the draft done by November so I can spend NaNoWriMo revising or drafting a different novel, but…here we are in almost mid-October now, yikes!

So here are some of my findings on this topic so far…

Suprise me!

You know how it’s someone’s birthday and you ask them what they want for their birthday, and they say “Surprise me!” Then it can be annoying and scary as you frantically try to think of what to get them, right? And some people, adversely, hate surprises. Well – no fear! In writing, it’s a good thing to surprise your readers.

In this article, Linda S. Clare talks about surprising readers, and studying stereotypes to make sure your characters feel real, instead of like caricature, or an insensitive stereotype. One way to do this, she quotes Donald Maas as saying, is to give readers an ’emotional gut punch’ – make the stakes high! Make them feel, when crafting your characters and deciding what they will do or say.

Another tip in the article is to lay the groundwork slowly for your character’s emotional development, so that it will come as a surprise; but not out-of-left-field (out of nowhere). This will make them unpredictable but not in an annoying, sudden fashion.

One of the toughest aspects of writing unpredictable characters, she says, is to make sure the reader still gets some satisfaction. We’ve seen how much of a bummer it can be when, say, everyone in a book or movie dies, versus how invested we get when say, almost everyone dies and you’re not sure who is going to live, and what characters will do next.

1,295 Unpredictable Stock Illustrations, Cliparts and Royalty Free  Unpredictable Vectors

Lists, lists, lists

The idea of listing appeals to me. Personally when I’m outlining a book or creating a character, lists help me to figure pros and cons, what must happen, what must be part of the character versus what can be cut, etc.

In this blog post, Nicole Singer talks about writing lists of your ideas. Cross off the first two she says – and I say, why not more? Try more! – because your first few ideas are bound to be more cliche, overly-used ideas. Go with your gut, and go with what calls to you, I think; but not those first few ideas, because they are just the first few things that pop into your brain.

Write better characters

There’s so much to unpack in this next article by P.S. Hoffman, I’m not sure where to start. For starters, we have 19 tips given for writing incredible characters! It’s not quite our topic of unpredictability, but I felt it related and made relevant points, so I am including it in this post. 19 points is too many to go over in one blog post. But here are the ones that I really like, that struck me the most:

* Give your characters strong motivation
* Throw them in the cauldron – we need intense conflict!
* Make their physical description or show of personality distinctive and memorable (Hoffman uses Harry Potter’s lightning scar as an example, as well as Ron Weasley’s shocking red hair and hand-me-down robes)
* Show your character actively making choices; reveal through action

What about you? What are some ways you try to make your characters unpredictable?

Until next time,

One thought on “Writing Unpredictable Characters

  1. Oooh, this is a fascinating question. I don’t know that I’ve ever tackled “surprising characters” before. A few do leap to mind, though.

    Don Quixote might be the original surprising character – always doing the wrong thing, because of his insanity (feigned or otherwise). I specifically love the advice from Nicole Singer. I wonder if that’s how Cervantes wrote Quixote?

    “What would a normal person do in this situation? Cross that out, he definitely won’t do that then.”

    Great tips and summaries! And thank you for the link back 🙂


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