When Characters Attack (or do the unexpected)

I was watching Victorious with my nieces the other day.  Okay – I lied.  I was watching it for my own entertainment.  (That show is like a guilty pleasure.  It doesn’t hurt that my nieces love it too though.)  And on the show while teaching his students acting, the teacher, Sikowitz, said, “When characters do the unexpected, people pay attention.”

Although that’s true for acting, it’s equally true for writing.  No one wants to read about a character doing predictable things.

“Oh well, that vampire is going to drink animal blood.”  Oh wait.  “Human blood!?  He just killed someone!”

See the difference?

These days, people have these “good vampires.”  I say bring on the blood-sucking vamps who want to take over the world and kill anyone who gets in their way.  That’s not to say there aren’t vampires who don’t want to take over the world, but ALL vampires should drink humans. *

Back to topic now…

Even if a character grabs Cheerios instead of Apple Jacks when s/he always goes for the Apple Jacks.  That’s unexpected.  It means your character has changed.  But why do they change their cereal?  That’s when you keep your readers guessing.

I know that’s kind of a mundane example but even our characters have to do some mundane things.

What if suddenly your main character pulls out a knife and stabs a random stranger while on a nature hike?  S/he has never done that before.  Shoot, s/he probably never thought about it before.  So what’s going on?  Have aliens taken over your main character’s brain?  Is s/he hypnotized?  These are the things that will grab your readers’ (or reader’s) attention.

What unexpected thing has your character done?

* Sorry about the vampire analogy.  (I have vamps on the brain since I’m writing about them.)


7 thoughts on “When Characters Attack (or do the unexpected)

  1. First off, don’t get me started on the vampire thing. Vampires should kill people and drink their blood. (This is funny, since the trend toward sympathetic vampire characters was really started by Dark Shadows, which warped my tiny mind when I was a wee one, and which led to Anne Rice (she’s admitted the influence, even to the idea of a vampire being interviewed, which was from Dark Shadows) which has led to where we are today. But Barnabas Collins was not…

    Anyway, don’t get me started.

    As for characters doing the unexpected, I agree, but I think it’s a balancing act. On one hand: boring predictability, on the other: random arbitrariness. You’ve got to steer between them. This came out in some of the comments on this post on my blog:

    To get back to Barnabas Collins (the vampire, or at least the first one, on Dark Shadows — and to try to tie this together), he was sympathetic, but he was also cruel. He beat his servant, he tended to kidnap women and try to turn them into replicas of his long-lost love, he was made a vampire in the first place because he had loved and abandoned a servant girl in order to marry her mistress, but he was also capable of great heroism and self-sacrifice, but mostly in a very Barnabas-like way (manipulative and cruel, even though to good ends). So, he acted unpredictably at times, but never really out of character. Which is not easy for a writer to do, obviously, but it can be very effective.


    1. That doesn’t sound easy at all to do (creating Barnabas Collins as both sympathetic yet manipulative and cruel), but I can imagine how effective it would be.

      I agree about the characters though. It does have to be a balancing act.

      Thanks for sharing about the vampires. Very interesting indeed. I’ve never read any of Anne Rice’s stuff, and I’ve never watched Dark Shadows. So, it’s interesting to hear about.


  2. Well, Barnabas was introduced to the show as a straight-up villain. The idea was that he’d terrorize the Collins family for a while and then be destroyed. But he caught on (the show’s ratings had been dismal, but suddenly they took off and he became the breakout character), and because of the way the actor (Jonathan Frid) played him, viewers started to see him as more sympathetic, that he was doing terrible things but out of pain. This was a very organic process over time, not anything that was planned. I’m wondering how they will handle this in the upcoming movie, but I have confidence since the person driving the project is Johnny Depp, who grew up as a DS fanatic, just as I did.


  3. One of my characters just went off and bought a house without her partner knowing. I’m trying to figure out what that means–and hence I’ve hit a roadblock. I love that she does this, but I’m treading water until I figure out why. (It is her money, so I suppose that’s one major reason…)


    1. That’s interesting. Was she wanting a house that her partner wouldn’t buy her?

      I’ve had characters do the unexpected quite often. It definitely makes the story more interesting, but sometimes, it frustrates the writer. Good luck with figuring it out. 🙂


    2. That happens to me too…. I like taking mine off the beaten path, then I usually have to go do some sort of mindless task to sort out why I decided to send them down it in the first place. I think it helps layer the conflict a little, making the resolution that much more gratifying.

      I also like it when good characters make bad choices…. so any opportunity I have to make someone do something wrong, I take it.


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