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Character Serendipity

By Henry McLaughlin

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 CS 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 characters 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?

Henry McLaughlinHenry McLaughlin’s debut novel, Journey to Riverbend, won the 2009 Operation First Novel contest. He serves as Associate Director of North Texas Christian Writers. Besides writing fiction, Henry edits novels, leads critique groups, and teaches at conferences and workshops. He enjoys mentoring and coaching individual writers.

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4 Responses to Character Serendipity

  1. Dee Kincade says:

    I enjoyed your post.

    I’m a pantser, but I also have to know the main points and the ending before I write. My hero, who is not my main character seems unknown to me. I’ve written some of his background, but I’m still having trouble with his attitude toward my heroine.

    After reading your post I realized that he doesn’t know it yet, he’s met her twice and both times were short. So…

    Thank you for reminding me to let my characters lead me.

  2. Thanks, Dee. I’m glad my post is helpful.
    Two of my favorite quotes about character are:
    “First, find out what your hero wants, then just follow him!” from Ray Bradbury.
    The other is from William Faulkner: “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.”
    I pray God continues to bless your writing and gives you insight and wisdom into your characters and your story.

  3. I’m a plotster–that’s a reformed plotter. 🙂 But even when I was heavily plotting, characters would just pop up and demand to be put in the story. I still know the beginning, the mirror moment and how it ends…sometimes. Once, it didn’t end at all like I’d plotted. But I think that’s what I love most about writing.

  4. Pingback: Character Surprise | Nancy Faltermeier