Welcome Mike Nettleton!
Writing about your character’s emotions can be tricky. It also mirrors life. Your feelings and reactions in a situation are often much different than you thought they’d be. The same goes for those characters you thought you had all figured out beforehand.
If you’ve ever begun writing a scene, confident you knew how characters would react or what would be going through their minds at a moment of high emotion, only to have them shift gears and head in another direction, you’ll know exactly what I mean.
But our own lives are like that, aren’t they?
Let me give you an example.
After forty-two years of on-the-air work in radio, I’ve decided to retire at age sixty-two. There are a number of reasons for this, including disenchantment with the current corporate consolidation of the broadcasting business. The controlled anarchy I used to love, the adrenaline of flying by the seat of your pants, the parade of quirky or sometimes outright bizarre co-workers and hangers-on, have been replaced by an assembly-line mentality. Money-hungry number crunchers driven by their need to manipulate the stock price of their mega-corporation have put their mouths to the siphon hose and sucked all of the fun out of my occupation.
I decided mid-summer that I would give notice on or near my 62nd birthday. As it drew nearer, the anticipation built. My wife and I began counting down the days, hours and minutes until I performed my last radio show on December 31st. We fantasized about the corporation downsizing again just before I gave notice, eliminating my position, and thanking me with 9 months severance pay. The perfect ending in our eyes.
Finally, the Friday before my birthday arrived, I drove to work, a carefully-worded letter of resignation beside me on the seat, a small knot tightening in the pit of my stomach.
I’d rehearsed the moment in my mind a thousand times. I’d hand the letter to Brad, my boss (for whom I have immense respect), tell him I was retiring at the end of the year, and listen as he tried to wheedle me into staying. But I’d refuse and, as I left his office, I’d jump in the air, click my heels together, and do the happy dance. Unbridled joy would flood through me and I’d feel a sense of well being unlike anything else in my life.
What actually happened was this. After accepting my letter and hearing my end-of-year
I’m outa here declaration, Brad simply nodded, shook my hand, and said, “Congratulations.” And that was it. When I walked out, there was no jubilant jig, no ear-to-ear grin and certainly no feeling of triumph. In fact, to my amazement, I felt a rising sense of melancholy. The elation I thought I’d feel about the upcoming years of freedom and promise transformed into sadness over my lost youth and even a creeping fear that without radio, I might find myself rudderless, without purpose.
After a time, back at my desk working on preparation for my weekend radio show, the mini-gloom passed and I was able to revel a little in the moment. After all, I had plans; I wasn’t going to sit idle. My resignation marked the beginning of a new chapter in my life, not simply the end of an era. Any sense of regret I may have felt seeped away.
And I saw how over-thinking or over-planning the reactions of my characters could inhibit their real emotions and reactions.
Now my advice is: Don’t be afraid to allow the characters you’ve brought to life on the page surprise you with their reactions and feelings. For reasons unknown to you, they may announce a dislike of a particular food or suspicions about a character you thought they’d like. You may find your fearless hard-charging hero quivering in the corner at the appearance of a spider. You may discover he or she is not as scrupulously honest as you once believed.
As far as I’m concerned, the more unpredictably your characters act and feel in the myriad of situations you throw them into, the more three-dimensional they become. Just because they live between the covers of a book shouldn’t mean they have any easier time getting in touch with their true emotions than we mere mortals do.
Thank you, Mike.
If you’d like to find out more about Mike Nettleton and his books, please visit his website, Deadly Duo Mysteries.
Sometimes a Great Commotion
The Big Grabowski
Available at Barnes and Noble
I know characters have surprised me with their reactions to situations. How about you? Has a character ever done the opposite of what you expected? Do you let them do what they seem to want to do, or do you try to rope them in? Any questions for Mike about character development?