Friday, April 08, 2011

Unexpected Characters! Now What? by Liz Curtis Higgs

Liz Curtis Higgs has been telling tales since she attempted her first novel—handwritten in a marble notebook—at the tender age of ten. Award-winning careers in radio broadcasting, public speaking, nonfiction writing, and children’s books honed Liz’s storytelling talents, bringing her back to her first love, writing fiction.

She's the author of 28 books, with more than 3 million copies in print, including Here Burns My Candle, winner of the RT Book Reviews Best Inspirational Romance of 2010, and her latest Scottish historical novel, Mine Is the Night.

Liz and her husband, Bill, live in a nineteenth-century farmhouse in Kentucky and are the proud (and relieved!) parents of two college grads, Matthew and Lillian. For more about Liz, visit or connect with her on Facebook or Twitter.

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 scenari
o 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 k
nows 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 latest novel, Mine Is the Night, Elisabeth Kerr is seeking employment with a tailor, who is apologizing for offering such meager wages. He confesses t
o 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 like 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 a
s 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.

Mine Is the Night

She lost everything she loved.
He had everything she needed.

But could she find the courage to trust him?

Stepping from a battered coach on a rainy April eve, newly widowed Elisabeth Kerr must begin again, without husband or title, property or fortune. She is unafraid of work and gifted with a needle, but how will she stitch together the tattered remnants of her life? And who will mend her heart, torn asunder by betrayal and deception?

Elisabeth has not come to Selkirk alone. Her mother-in-law, Marjory Kerr, is a woman undone, having buried her husband, her sons, and any promise of grandchildren. Dependent upon a distant cousin with meager resources, Marjory dreads the future almost as much as she regrets the past. Yet joy still comes knocking, and kindness is found in unexpected places.

Then a worthy hero steps forward, rekindling a spark of hope. Will he risk his reputation to defend two women labeled as traitors to the crown? Or will a wealthy beauty, untainted by scandal, capture his affections?

The heartrending journey of the Kerr women comes to a glorious finish in Mine Is the Night, a sparkling gem of redemption and restoration set in eighteenth-century Scotland.

WaterBrook Press - March 15, 2011


Kelly Klepfer said...

Thanks for sharing your well-earned wisdom with us, Liz. (Or Jilly-on-the-spot!).

: ) Kelly

Michael Ehret said...

Great insight, Liz, as always. Had this happen in my WIP also. It's fun.

Laura Frantz said...

Wonderful post - and an amazing book. I waited to read Here Burns My Candle till Mine is the Night released, and so had double the pleasure this past month:) I had a child appear when my upcoming release was finished and was a bit panicked, but like you said, my little Abby added so much fun and light to an otherwise serious book. I've been thanking Him ever since! Bless you for your beautiful words, Liz.

Ane Mulligan said...

Unexpected characters and unexpected plot twists ~ I love them! That's when the magic happens in a book, and what I eagerly wait for with each manuscript!

As always, Liz, you either teach me something new or you confirm something that's going on. Thank you!

D.L. Diener said...

Can't believe Gibson wasn't part of it all along! To think?! wow.

And little Peter? I can see him being accidental, but divine- for the story.

I'm glad you've confessed to these characters who wandered in. Makes me feel better at the lack of control I seem to have with strangers wandering into my WIP.

In fact, one of my favorite secondary characters now did just that.

So glad to see you here :)

Marcy Kennedy said...

I'm a planner by nature, but my newest project is co-written with a friend who's a pantser (def: someone who writes by the seat of their pants). She's leaned how efficient it can be to work with a plan from me, and I've learned the joy of letting go (including having characters you didn't plan in advance walk on the stage) from her.

Cathy Gohlke said...

I love how the Lord surprises us with these gifts! Thank you for sharing this experience, Liz. It reminds me to anticipate joy in writing. I loved, too, your idea that every story is already inside us. I can see that, and I can see how our Father nurtures and develops and journeys with us until we'll ready and able to let those stories flow--a river of blessing!
God bless you and others through your writing and ministries!

Marcia said...

Yes! it's so much fun when this happens. Love the way the Lord inspires. :)

Shirley author of Forever Promised said...

Thank you very much. I am an early reviewer for Library thing and enjoyed Mine is the night very much. I live in Ky too!

Anonymous said...

What fun to learn of your gift characters, Liz. Thank you. As always--encouraging and a joy. And thank you, Kelly, for getting this insight for us.

Mary Kay

Lynn McCallum said...

Thanks for sharing these insights, Liz. It is wonderful to know that those "surprise" characters are not unknown to the Master Storyteller, but are there all along, just waiting to show up when the timing is right. I love the idea of letting the story flow, and inviting the characters to sit down with us so we can get better acquainted. Liz, I am very happy that both Peter and Gibson showed up. They add so much to the story!