Susanna here, and this month's Ask A Wench question actually comes from me, because I'm curious.
One of the hazards of writing the way I like best, without using an outline, is that I can sometimes have characters wander right into a story without any warning, like an unexpected house guest, leaving me to wonder who they are and what they're doing. My first was Mrs. Hutherson in Mariana, an unassuming older woman who turned up with a plate of baked goods to welcome my heroine to the village and when, having decided I already had enough baked-goods-delivering villagers, I wrote her out of that scene, she promptly turned up again in another one, stubbornly refusing all my attempts to erase her from the plot until at last I gave up trying, let her stay, and watched her change the whole book for the better.
There have been several others since then, including the Spanish pirate-hunting Captain del Rio who sauntered unexpectedly up to greet my hero and heroine in A Desperate Fortune, and then charmed his way into several scenes after that, all of them unplanned and all fun to write.
And just recently, the characters in Bellwether, the book I'm writing now, had unexpected guests descend on them, and one of those guests had a half-familiar smile:
The whole of his attention had been captured by the Spanish captain, whose name he had recognized.
“You wouldn’t by chance be,” de Brassart had said when they’d been introduced, “the great pirate Captain del Rio made famous in all of those stories by Madame MacPherson?”
Del Rio had smiled and corrected him. “Great pirate-hunter. And no, he’s my father.”
“Is he? My mother devoured those tales. And you must resemble him strongly, for you look exactly how I would have pictured him from the descriptions.”
The smile had become a grin, brilliantly white against the trimmed black beard. “But my father will tell you he’s much better looking.”
And like his father, this younger del Rio is settling into the story and stealing his scenes.
So I wondered…
Have the other Wenches also had to deal with any unexpected characters, who wandered (or pushed their way) into a story without you intending them to?
I don't plot a book in detail, but I do generally have a framework in mind, and I know that I'll develop more characters as needed. It's like opening a door and inviting them into the story and getting acquainted. I'm not usually surprised by them, but I do enjoy watching them develop into more three dimensional characters. And I have a bad habit of finding that eligible males with small roles really need stories of their own. <G>
The closest I had to a surprise character was in my very first book, The Diabolical Baron, when I really didn't know what I was doing. My noble ex-military hero was dubious about claiming a title he didn't expect, but he had a totally obnoxious cousin who would inherit if Richard didn't step up.
The book ended with a sword fight when Richard realizes that he should jolly well step up to his inheritance to save it from awful cousin Reggie. Except–in that last scene, Reggie showed both humor and regret for his bad behavior. Hmm. Readers started saying they'd like to see more of Reggie. What, that obnoxious drunken lout?
Light bulb moment! I realized that Reggie's bad behavior always came when he was drunk, which was much of time. Which made me realize that I was tired of historicals where "heroes" drank like fish and never suffered any consequences. I jolly well wanted to see the consequences of drunkenness–and hence was born what is probably my best known book, The Rake, (originally The Rake and the Reformer), which is about alcoholism, addiction, recovery, and other serious topics–but Reggie did have that sense of humor!
Another time when a character went far beyond his original role was in Petals in the Storm (originally The Controversial Countess) when I needed to give my spy heroine a foil. In a finger snap I invented Robin, her best friend, former lover, and mentor in spying. I adored Robin (sense of humor again!) and he developed in interestingly twisty ways and eventually became the hero of Angel Rogue, (originally The Rogue and the Runaway.)
It's always so much fun to open the door to that new character and see where he or she (but almost always "he") goes!
Just about every character can surprise their writers at one point or another, some more than others. They might be just the person you want them to be, but change in unexpected ways throughout the story; they might show up on the page briefly and end up stealing a scene or a lot more; they could step right out of the research when you didn't see it coming. Others show up to solve a story problem, while a few pop up completely whole out of nowhere when you're doing something else.
One afternoon several years ago, I was sitting in my living room doing some research for a novel about Queen Margaret of Scotland — and Lady Macbeth pretty much jumped off the bookshelves right there, a fierce young warrior queen. I had never thought about her that way, having her all jumbled up in my mind with the Shakespeare lady. But she caught my attention–she had been queen of Scots just before Margaret, same century, some of the same players. Lady M was intriguing and very insistent, and I just had to write a book for her before I could go on to the Margaret book I'd been planning.
Other characters have shown up whole cloth, very unexpectedly — the heroine of The Stone Maiden practically sprang out of the air on a breezy, sunny day as I stood on the ruins of a Scottish castle looking out at an ancient, rugged landscape scattered with stones and history. I could almost see her standing on the ruins beside me–and just as with Lady Macbeth, I felt like I knew this woman. Another heroine, Michaelmas in Lady Miracle, began as the young sister of the hero in The Angel Knight. I thought she might be around for a couple of scenes, but she totally surprised me with her healing powers and her staying power. She wanted her own book, and got it.
Some characters show up in the nick of time to get something unstuck or to shift things in the right direction. A Saxon priest in Lady Macbeth materialized to help establish for the reader why the main character is named Gruadh (after some deep research, I realized this was more likely her actual name than the traditional Gruoch) — and he also gave her a nickname, "Rue" — she needed a nickname, but it had to come from an English character, not a Scottish one, to make sense (really she became Rue because I kept mistyping "Grouch").
Other characters start out as one thing and become another. In the first draft of my Victorian romance, Waking the Princess, a rather insufferable countess was chewing a lot of scenery and being obnoxious and slapsticky. I needed the scene in the story, but didn't like the character. Then she presented a solution — she could be a monkey instead, be a total brat and create trouble for the hero. I loved that little monkey!
I have unexpected characters wandering into my stories all the time. Usually I'm delighted, but at times I've had to prune them back hard, to prevent them from taking over. I think it's the result of being an organic writer (otherwise knows as a pantser), the kind of writer who writes with a vague idea of where the story is going, rather than the kind of writer who plots everything meticulously before they write. I could be wrong, though. All I know is that I'm forever having to deal with minor characters popping up and edging towards center stage.
Sometimes I don't prune them, and they become major characters in their own right. Daisy, in my recent Chance Sisters series was just such an unexpected character. She appeared in the first few pages of The Autumn Bride and was meant to be a messenger only, but instead she popped into life, gutsy, outspoken and blithe, and when the time came for her to bow out of the story, I just couldn't leave her there. So she became one of the "sisters" and got her own story** and her own hero in the end.
Since I’m one of those writers who fly by the seat of my pants, the only characters I ever really know when I start are the protagonists and maybe some of their families. This gives all the pushy people (and kids, always kids for some reason) who have something to say lots of opportunity to jump on the page and kick sand in my face.
One of the more irritating ones lately appears in Chemistry of Magic. He just walked in front of my hero, shoved a bunch of grass in his face, and started talking gibberish through his missing front teeth. I have utterly no idea what my subconscious was telling me, but this talking garden gnome practically demanded his own plot. I eventually squeezed him into a role, but he’s still not happy. He has a lot more to say but I ran out of space to say it. Anyone need to borrow an ancient garden gnome with tales to tell?
Nothing throws my planning off course more than an unexpected character. I say planning, but like so many writers I’m really a pantser so I have a vague idea of where my main protagonists are going and then things change from there. It does mean that if a character unexpectedly pops up demanding attention I can usually accommodate them if it’s appropriate. Sometimes though they do try to take over and then I have to put them firmly aside until they can have their own story.
It was an unexpected character who was indirectly responsible for me moving from Mills & Boon historical series to longer books. I kept trying to give some of my secondary characters more of a plot line and my editor kept pruning them. When I wrote The Penniless Bride, the heroine’s brother just demanded to play a larger part in the story and that was when my editor said: “You need to write bigger books.” Even now some of those characters from early books pop up in my mind reminding me that I didn’t tell their story.
Most recently it was Hector the cat who took over in The Phantom Tree, and his story took the book in several unexpected directions. Hector is imperious and knows his own mind. It was impossible to resist him so I followed him to see where he took me and had a wonderful time. He was balanced by Monty, the black Labrador, named after my own lovely first dog, who was the most laid back character in the story!
It’s really quite upsetting. Thank goodness it doesn’t happen often, but occasionally I will bring in secondary characters, and give them strict orders on what their role is . . . only to find they have a mind of their own. Honestly, the nerve of it. Don’t they know who’s boss? Apparently not. (Which I suppose is what I deserve, as I must confess that often I have no idea what anyone is going do from chapter to chapter.
Take, for example, Lord Percival Grentham, who first appears in Sweet Revenge, the first book in my Lady Arianna mystery series. Grentham is Assistant MInister for State Security, charged by Whitehall with keeping London under strict control. He’s perfectly suited for the job. He’s cold-hearted, calculating and ruthless when necessary—a man quite willing to sacrifice innocent pawns on the chessboard of intrigue and deceptions that play out in Town to achieve the Greater Good. My hero is just such a pawn. He’s brought in by Grentham to unravel a diabolical mystery, and if he ends up as a casualty of the conflict, so be it. So Grentham is the perfect foil—a unlikable martinet, a necessary Evil for keeping the country safe. Readers will hate him. As did I when I first met him in his office.
So imagine my surprise when he started to show glimmers of a sense of humor, and tantalizing hints of humanity. “Percival,” I muttered. “Stop this—don’t you understand that you are an utter arse?” He smiled that very cruel and cold smile that sends shivers down the spines of his subordinates and continued to disobey my orders.(After all he's used to being in command.) After a while, I gave up. These things happen.
I’m about half and half when it comes to planning characters. I have a general idea of who I need to bring on stage for a story. They start out as archetypes — the Brave Young Girl, the Brooding and Cynical Hero, the Wise Old Woman, the Loyal-but-quirky Sidekick. That much is straightforward planning ahead.
I’ll fill in some backstory to fit with the plot I’m building and the kind of person I want to write. And that’s about the end of the careful planning part of the process. I know who my character is at the beginning of the book. I put them in the setting, dealing with some opening action we have to get through.
From then on I watch my folks move through the plot I’ve laid out, almost an observer. They tell me who they are. Pretty soon, I can ‘hear’ them. Little, unforeseen bits of stage business pop up.
He comes through the window and drops the knife on her coverlet. Where did that come from? It’s just the sort of thing he’d do, but I didn’t plan it.
Lots of surprises, really. Nine-tenths of the manuscript is the characters spinning their own words and their own story within the confines of the plot I’ve written while I watch and write it down.
Sometimes I get fascinated by who they’re becoming. That’s best of all.
So now, here's a question for all of YOU… in all the books you've read, have you encountered any characters that you suspect were unexpected? Or have you encountered any characters who, even in a bit part, stole their scenes?