Welcome guest, Liz Curtis Higgs, an awarding author and speaker who has agreed to share with us what to do with characters that pop up in your writing without any invitation.Unexpected Characters: Why They Appear and What to Do with Them
Every novel I've written has at least one fairly major character who wasn't part of the original plot: Norah in Mixed Signals; Duncan in Thorn in My Heart; Gibson in Here Burns My Candle. The scenario is always the same: my fingers are flying across the keyboard when an unnamed person strolls on stage as if they belong there.
Truth is, they usually do belong in the scene; I just don't know why yet.
You may be tempted, like Pippin in The Lord of the Rings: Two Towers, to say, "Don't talk to it! Don't encourage it!" But my advice is, simply listen and type. See what this stranger has to offer and how the others on stage respond. If he or she takes the conversation in a compelling new direction, or prods another character to reveal some hitherto hidden truth, or adds much-needed color to the story, then make the newcomer welcome, and offer a prayer of thanks to the One who knows what your story needs even more than you do.
I believe every novel we're ever going to write, first word to last, already lives inside us. Our job as writers is to get out of the way and let that story flow. Plotting is helpful and character analysis is wise, but we run the danger of merely marching wooden figures across a chessboard. Better to let the story breath, watch the characters dance, and embrace the element of surprise.
In chapter ten of my historical novel, Mine Is the Night, Elisabeth Kerr is seeking employment with a tailor, who is apologizing for offering such meager wages. He confesses to her, “My Peter is growing so fast I canna keep him in shoes.” Then Elisabeth felt a tug at her heart. “You have a son?”
I felt a tug at my heart too, but for an altogether different reason. "A son?! What son?" The lad soon whispered his name—Peter—then remained offstage for seven chapters while we got to know each other. When he finally bounded down the turnpike stair, Elisabeth was instantly smitten with the child. So, it seems, were my readers.
In my online Book Club I discovered why this red-haired boy belonged in the story. One woman wrote, "Peter is charming, and we see through him how Bess relates to children." Why didn't I think of that? If you want to show a character longing to be a mother, let a child take her hand. As another astute reader put it, "Adding Peter's character was a good way to explore the maternal urges that Elisabeth was dealing with, and helped her realize that she really did want to remarry and have children someday."
I could pretend that was my intent all along, but you know the truth: Peter was sent to me as a gift from above to give the story something it lacked. "Peter brings innocence and laughter to the story," another reader observed. Indeed, I smiled every time he appeared. Obligingly, during the serious exchanges he trotted off to take a nap or play with friends. He knew when he was needed and when his exuberance would get in the way.
I'm learning to trust the Lord when he brings unexpected characters my way, and to react as his disciples did when they found Jesus speaking with a Samaritan woman at a well. They were "surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, 'What do you want?' or 'Why are you talking with her?'” (John 4:27)
She may have walked into the scene unbidden, unnamed, and without any physical description, yet the story would have been meaningless without her.
When a stranger appears in your story, offer them a chair, a bite to eat, a drink of water, and see what happens.
Liz Curtis Higgs is the author of more than thirty books—fiction, nonfiction, and children's—with 4.5 million copies in print. Her Scottish historical novels have won the hearts of readers and reviewers around the globe. Whence Came a Prince received a Christy Award for Best Historical Novel. Here Burns My Candle won the Romantic Times Reviewers’ Choice Award for Best Inspirational Romance, Mine Is the Night was a New York Times bestseller, and A Wreath of Snow won the Christian Manifesto Lime Award for Best Historical Fiction.
According to Publishers Weekly, “Higgs is a stickler for period authenticity.” To that end, Liz has traveled sixteen times to Scotland, and has filled her shelves with nearly one thousand resource books about Scottish history and culture. USAToday.com called her Christmas novella, A Wreath of Snow, “A delight for the senses. Tender, touching and sweetly Victorian.”
Discover more about Liz’s fiction: