When characters surprise me

Unremembered Lives is about 4/5ths complete now, and the characters have officially taken over. That’s a good thing. This has happened to me before, and I’ve heard other writers remark on how startling it can be.

[Spoiler Alert!] When I was writing The Sparrow, I knew that the priest was going to stay true to his vows but I was also aiming at a scene where his resolve would be tested. I even knew the line I was going to steal from Shakespeare: “Serve God, Emilio. Love me.”

When I finally got to the point in the story where I was going to write that scene, Sofia Mendes said to me, “I would never do that.”

Yes. She said that. To me. I had been writing dialog for her for a year, but this time it was the character speaking to me.

My response was to sputter incoherently and mutter, “But- but- but- Shakespeare!”

And she said, “No. I have seen his commitment and I respect him. And with an emotional background like mine, I would never put myself in a position where I could be rejected. I’m not stupid, you know.”

“But- but- but Shakespeare!” (Note that my dialog is less articulate than the character’s.)

“On the other hand,” Sofia said thoughtfully, “Jimmy Quinn has grown up quite a bit.”

I swear to you, my response to that remark was, “He’s too tall for you.”

Shallow, yes, but that’s the level where my conscious mind was working. And yet, I went back to writing and Sofia was right. I let Anne Edwards work through my own responses to the idea of her and Jimmy becoming a couple, and it worked. It made sense.

Now what would have happened if I had forced Sofia to go forward as I had imagined she would? I would have sacrificed the integrity of the character, and the tone of that part of the story would have been completely different. There would have been anger and resentment instead of acceptance and sweetness. The characters and the story itself needed that leavening, particularly in view of the tragedy to come.

Something very similar has just happened while writing Unremembered Lives. I had a very different outcome planned for two different relationships, but the fictional couples have unexpectedly made their own decisions.

Instead of fighting them, I rethought the end of the story, and yes, it’s better this way. More hopeful. More full of energy. Characters that move toward their future with some confidence and integrity.

For Unremembered Lives, this has meant loosening history’s grip. I can’t tell the story well if I stay as close to fact as I did with Epitaph, for example. But I have come up with a way to give one couple an ambiguous end that doesn’t directly contradict history. It will let the reader draw conclusions that could fit history but which do fit this story.





7 thoughts on “When characters surprise me”

  1. Very Interesting. Yes, I know from my own writing that the character begins taking over and telling me what he or she wants to really say…not what I want her/him to tell the reader. I do not know if that happens to every one who loves to write or not.
    How goes your music lessons?
    My best,

  2. When I write short fiction, I have in mind what a character would be like—physically, behaviorally, and psychologically. Then dialog becomes what would be “right” for that person to say in that situation. They don’t speak for me, they speak for themselves, and sometimes I have to control my urge to write what I would have said and let them be genuine.


  3. I am not a writer. . .as you are. . . but I do love to write. And after doing so, I oftentimes wonder just how I’ve come to write what I have written. I oftentimes think of my efforts as having been “channeled”. Some Other Force takes over. . ..about which I’m not completely aware. . . as I work. And more often than not, such “help”. . .such “support” feels oh-so-good. (Thanks for doing what you do. . .and so well. I’m re-reading The Sparrow, now, again, after several years. . .and still can’t put it down. Blessings! LB

  4. I can’t say enough how I enjoy reading about how you develop your story-telling. I get so wrapped up when I read your books and find myself talking to you–wondering how it happens. It reminds me a bit of a huge piece of marble with a beautiful sculpture inside. But it’s kind of in reverse pulling things into it and letting them grow. I’m grateful for your sharing and can’t wait to see the book.


  5. I so love your books. Anxiously awaiting your latest. I think what I enjoy the most are your characters. They seem so real to me. It sounds as though they become real to you as well.

Leave a Comment