Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Confronting the Unexpected

What I'm reading: Rain Fall, by Barry Eisler

Thanks to Marie Nicole for sharing her story. There's still time to leave a comment on her post to enter the contest for a copy of her book. Scroll down. I'll still be here.

What's been going on in Florida started me thinking about disruptions, and how we deal with them. We spend a lot of time getting to know our characters so we'll know how they'll respond in any situation we subject them to. Or will we?

It's just as important to know how your character will behave when confronted with the unexpected. And, as authors, we need to keep the unexpected happening. After all, "Only Trouble is Interesting."

For example, here in Florida, we've had the longest cold snap on record. And it's been cold. Ice on the cars and rooftops in the morning. Some days, the temperatures never hit 40. True, if you're from Minnesota, you're probably laughing, but I've lived in Orlando for 22 years, and we've never had the heat running 12 days straight. Heck, most years, we don't have the heat running twelve HOURS, period. Now, it's been chugging along, eating up more kilowatt hours than our a/c does.

Some of the local power companies have been overburdened, and have had to cut power here and there. We have a nifty (usually) gizmo on our electrical system that allows the power company to shut down power to our heat or a/c units for brief periods of time when demands are too great. For this, we get a small rebate on our electric bill each month. In 22 years, it's been turned on exactly three times. Two of them this week.

Now, back to you Minnesota type folks. You deal with cold weather because it's part of the package. Your electric companies are ready for winter. We poor Floridians, even if we like the cold (me, me, me!) don't necessarily have what we need. Until we decided to move to Colorado, I didn't own a parka. I bought it for our trip to Quebec, but had we not been planning to move, I'd probably have borrowed something from hubby. Fashion statement? Not. But I'd have been protected from the cold and wind.

I don't own a winter coat. I did buy a dorky hat once when I had to go to Syracuse in January. I don't own snow boots. I do have a pair of "dress" boots, but they're not warm. I have two warmish sweaters. You get the picture. Since a normal winter cold snap is rarely more than 3 days, the clothes I have are enough to get by.

So, what happens when you put someone in a situation that comes as a surprise? What is your character's routine? If he finds himself in a different environment, how will he cope? Does he grumble and complain? Does he make the best of it? Go into hiding until it passes.

Of course, I'm referring to a lot more than the weather, or other external influences. Showing a character shivering with cold isn't the point. It's what he's thinking, and what he's doing. Has your character ever been in a similar situation? Does he have past experiences to draw on?

Is your character someone who likes routine? If he walks into a favorite bar, does the bartender know what he's going to order? At our Sunday hangout, the staff likes to get to know its customers and what they order. We throw a monkey wrench into our bartender's evening because we rarely order the same drink two weeks running—but when we do, that throws him.

The best characters are the ones who have to cope with NOT having their creature comforts, or their professional tools. In last night's read, the hero was a chef renowned for his veal and lamb, and he prepared an exquisite meal to impress the heroine. Who, he discovered too late, was a strict vegetarian.

Or the hero who's a whiz with technology: What happens when he doesn't have any of his fancy equipment? Does he give up? Go into MacGyver mode and create a high-tech gizmo? Or utilize a totally new way to solve his problem, not relying on technology at all?

Maybe it's simple frustration. Trust me, having a house on the market leads to plenty of that. Enough for a whole new post. Or computers? Or thermostats? Definitely plenty of blog fodder for another time. How does your character deal the little frustrations? What about the big ones? What does he do when he gets a flat? On a winding, muddy, mountain road? In the rain? With no cell phone coverage?

What about changing thinking patterns. Can he (to beat a dead cliché) get 'out of the box'? Will he give up an alpha position if circumstances warrant it?

Odds are you don't know this until you get well into the book. At least I don't. Or do you plot that tightly and develop your characters to that degree before you put fingers to keyboard?


Sam said...

Even though I spend a lot of time on character development and an outline before I start most drafts, my understanding of my characters grows as I write. New understanding leads to surprises that require me to modify the plot.

Terry Odell said...

Sam, Surprises are what make it fun for me.

Terry Stonecrop said...

Sometimes my protagonist surprises me with his reactions. So, no, I don't tightly plot. Good post. I'll be thinking about this. Love the vegetarian story and that pizza is making me hungry.

Brrr. I'm in Florida too and our heat keeps going. We have what we call our NY/Boston clothes. But not too many of them. My laundry has doubled. After a longer than usual hot, steamy summer, this is too much. This character whines a lot when confronted with the unexpected:)

Hart Johnson said...

I love this! I managed in CONFLUENCE to use a number of your examples... for starters, my family moved from Seattle to a mountainous area, so while Seattle isn't tropical, it also isn't boots & shovel weather. I've also got a vegetarian teen who has to scramble on occasion, and a first day of school at the college where suddenly there is traffic and difficulty parking. I find this all the kind of detail that makes the stories real to us and plausible rather than just a mainlining of plot.

Barbara Edwards said...

of course, everything is fodder for the muse so disruption is at the top of the list. I find concentrating on writing makes me block out the world and I need the reminders. Thanks for a great post.

Ilona Fridl said...

I live in Wisconsin, but I understand you. I moved here from Los Angeles in 1971 and I'm still not used to the cold. This has been one of the coldest winters since I moved here!

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

A great point about throwing our characters into unexpected situations. It's a great way of manufacturing conflict for them...and to see how they react to it! We're like evil scientists, doing experiments on these folks.

Mystery Writing is Murder
Mystery Lovers’ Kitchen

Terry Odell said...

Terry (the other one!) I whine about the heat here all the time. I prefer this cold snap. Just wish I'd come from a climate where I had the 'backup' wardrobe stored in a box somewhere!

WT - sounds like you've got plenty to draw from.

Barbara, thanks for stopping by.

Ilona: I moved from LA to Florida in '71! And I'm still not adjusted to the humid climate.

Elizabeth - Evil? Writers? Curious. Demanding. Conniving. Nasty, maybe. Never evil. Thanks for stopping by. :-)

Carol Kilgore said...

My characters don't share much with me before I start writing. I do a lot of drafts and learn more about them on each one. They always surprise me.

Marvin D Wilson said...

Good article on a very important element of writing. One thing I do is I have a character's journal where I log any and everything about my characters. From personality, habits, appearance, background, dress habits, hobbies, quirky traits, etc., and as I write the story and add things to their personal makeup resume I make sure to go back to the journal and make a note of it. That way my characters can evolve as I write them and I can stay consistent with their representation in the story without having to search all through the ms trying to remember what their favorite ice cream is or how they react to cold weather, etc. Works for me.

The Old Silly

Rob said...

The unexpected, even when an author choreographs it carefully for the reader is You Bet -- what makes the book go round. I love it when a good twist suggests itself out of the blue, however, as much as I do the ones I plant with care.

Terry Odell said...

Carol - sounds like we might have something in common. I know some basic stuff before I start. I have to have a rudimentary GMC for my main characters, but we learn as we go.

Marvin, Thanks, and I'm in awe. I keep meaning to create a character Bible of sorts, especially since I want to (and have written) series/connected books. Somehow, I haven't had the discipline to do anything more than very sketchy notes. You're inspiring me here.

Rob -- I totally agree.

Jemi Fraser said...

My character surprised me (and herself) the other day by pouting about circumstances. She's not a pouter, but everything kept going wrong. The pouting surprised us both, but it seemed real. "Enough is enough!" She got through it, but I think it made her more human. :)

Terry Odell said...

Jemi - I'm sure it was right for the character, and sometimes those emotional bursts reveal character - for both author and character, as you've noted.

Author Roast and Toast said...

It's been freezing here in Florid, she's so right!

Mona Risk said...

Yes it's been quite cold in Florida. As for characters, I like what you said. Send him in an unexpected situation where he is lost for a moment or two. I do that in my books. Have hero plans everything carefully and have everything turn wrong on him. Poor hero.

Terry Odell said...

Mona - things should be warming up soon. And yes, don't we have fun throwing our characters into the quicksand to see what they'll do.

susan said...

Life is full of surprises and each time one comes face to face just met it head on. I usually feel stronger and better afterwards. susan L.