In writing fiction, few things are as discombobulating as a surprise character. You spend all this time and energy mapping out your story, putting the characters in their proper places, and then, at some point during the writing process, an unfamiliar personality appears and demands a role. You are then faced with a dilemma. Do you let the character take the stage, or do you simply bypass him or her and continue writing the story as you originally planned? The answer: it depends.
The rule of thumb is that if a character (or a scene) helps to move the story forward, adds necessary depth to it, or contributes an unexpected twist (as long as the twist serves to further and/or add texture to the story) he or she can stay. However, if the character doesn’t have any place except to show off his or her talents as a fictional being, you will probably need to cut them out. The question then, is how do you know whether or not the character belongs in the story. This is where writer’s intuition, a good sense of story, and a little sound judgment come into play.
I don’t believe any character should ever be dismissed entirely. Sometimes, characters are speaking to you from the future (as in a book that has yet to be written) and will fit perfectly into a different story. These characters are jumping the gun, overly excited by their own existence, and don’t yet realize that their time hasn’t come yet. Other times, a character is speaking to you from the past (as in a former character, probably in disguise, who doesn’t feel he or she got a fair shake the first time around.) These guys often need to either be dismissed, or altered enough that they are unrecognizable from one book to the next. Good characters, like good actors, should be dexterous enough that they can adapt to and blend into different storylines while still retaining their believability. Resurrecting old characters under different names is a custom that, although common enough, can only go so far. After a while, your characters will become stale and predictable.
When I was writing The White Room, my first surprise character was Aunt Mimi (this was before I started calling my mentor “Mimi”, by the way). Aunt Mimi just appeared and in true diva style, demanded the floor. I was terribly unseasoned then and never even questioned her existence. As it turned out, Aunt Mimi went on to lend the story some much needed comic relief in those earlier scenes. Later, in the same book, when Kendra Howell appeared, my mentor told me to stop and consider her place in my story before writing her out. I was torn because while I didn’t feel Kendra had a very large part, my instinct told me that what little role she was going to play would be an important one. I didn’t feel attached to Kendra like I did some of the other players but I couldn’t escape the sense that she had something of value to contribute. After some deliberation, I decided to follow through with my instinct and let this surprise character play her part. As it turned out, I was right. Although Kendra’s role was a miniscule one in terms of presence and dialogue, she ended up being the answer to a serious hitch in my storyline. As was Sir Purrcival (another unexpected presence in The White Room), my main characters irritating and ever-present pet cat.
The same thing has happened in An Evil Heart, the book I am currently working on (and close to being finished with!) with my friend and mentor, Kim Williams-Justesen. As Aunt Mimi did in The White Room, a character simply known as The Thinning Man appeared in the first scene of An Evil Heart. I wrote him and then dismissed him as nothing more than a passing face that would populate and add a little color to the book. But all along, I was unable to ignore the haunting suspicion that he had a more important role than giving my main character someone to talk to in that first scene. As the story has developed, The Thinning Man has become crucial to the story as my main characters greatest enemy and ultimate downfall.
Also, in An Evil Heart, there have been characters that showed up, been written, and finally, been decided against and deleted. Such was the case with Julia, a girl who felt important but ultimately contributed nothing to the story. Maybe one day, Julia will reappear somewhere else, but as for An Evil Heart, she will not be found in the final draft at all.
Often times, surprise characters like to show up right before or shortly after the leave of another more important character. In An Evil Heart, a guy named Damien showed up right before my main characters best friend Brytt exited the story. Damien felt very important but in truth is no more than an extension of Brytt; Damien is the materialized result of my reluctance to say goodbye to Brytt. Damien had to be stopped. Now he only occupies a negligible slice in the overall life of the story. But Damien is significant to me, because his appearance was the first one I recognized for what it was before I wrote him out, and that is a step in the right direction. One day, I will give Damien his just dues and allow him his own story, so long as, of course, he isn’t so much like his predecessor Brytt that he smudges my style .
Yet another irritating way in which characters can annoy the ever-loving bejeesus out of a writer is to deviate from the plan. These characters already exist and are a part of the story, but they are rebels and will absolutely refuse to play the role you’ve cast them in. As it is with surprise characters, handling rebellious characters requires intuition and storyline management. When I was writing The White Room, a character I’d created named Winter went a completely different route than I’d intended. He was supposed to be a bad guy. He refused. I threatened to delete him. He said, “Go ahead. See what happens…” I tried forcing him to be deceptive and nasty. He laughed at me. (I realize how crazy this all sounds by the way, but personifying these characters here is the best way I can illustrate the strange nature of this process; bear with me.) When I finally accepted that Winter would not be swayed, the story began to take a new shape. A better shape. “Look,” Winter said to me (after I’d agreed to have a cup of coffee with him), “if you’ll let me do this instead of that, I promise you won’t be sorry.” I’m just kidding,of course. That never really happened. Winter hates coffee. He prefers fresh blood. :)
By letting Winter have his way though, a few different things happened. First, the story got tighter and more compelling. And second, Winter became one of my favorite characters of all time, despite his refusal to follow the rules. So, personally, I am all for letting the characters have their own voices… for the most part.
The key then, is to recognize what can stay and what must go, and that key can only be found in the use of sound judgment and the observance of intuition. Either way, it’s entirely up to the writer. Some will tell you that must listen to your characters without question. Others will say you must never, under any circumstances, let a character control the story. Myself, I’m somewhere in the middle. Personally, I look forward to meeting more surprise characters and seeing what they have to say… as long as it’s something I need to hear.