Brandon Crilly, author of Catalyst, talks about when characters do the unexpected and how it can benefit the writer. I’ve had this happen. In the third book of the Karen Wilson Chronicles, a tertiary character unexpected sacrificed himself, changing the course of the book and the rest of the series. Yeah, Brandon, *sage nod* I understand.
Characters have minds of their own once you flesh them out—and while it sounds bizarre to some people, we writers know that sometimes they’ll take control of the story while you’re drafting.
I tend to think of myself as an outliner, but really, I’m halfway to a pantser. My outline is part scene description for a play and part predictions about what will push my characters one way or another, and I don’t know everything that’s going to happen until I start drafting. That’s part of the fun for me—if I know everything ahead of time, there’s no need for me to write the draft because I won’t be surprised. (Maybe I’m secretly a writer chaotician. I do enjoy wearing a leather jacket.)
Because I’ve only outlined as much as I need and there’s lots of room for play, drafting sometimes means my characters react in ways I don’t expect. Small scale, it’s a particular line that comes across snarkier or more heartfelt than I would’ve thought, or one character turns to face the onrushing horde of spiders instead of leaping through the portal with their friends. But occasionally, as I’m drafting, one of my characters reacts in such a fundamentally different way than what I expect that it changes the entire path of that scene, if not the whole novel, and all I can do is watch. Like they’re directing my fingers on the keyboard.
Eerie, right? Unless you’ve had this moment, in which case we can nod sagely at each other across the table and ignore the folks giving us weird looks.
This happened during the drafting of Catalyst, in what’s become one of my favorite scenes of the book. Avoiding spoilers, my three central protagonists—street magician Mavrin, self-professed heretic Eyasu, and ex-soldier Deyeri—have their first moment of genuine quiet together after one dangerous or fast-paced moment after another, which started with being reunited after more than a decade. Starting to draft that scene, I thought it would be light and comfortable, as these three remember why they were friends for so long and realize that, even now, they have each other’s backs. Maybe even with a couple in-jokes.
Partway through, Deyeri makes an offhand comment that makes Mavrin and Eyasu laugh – but as I was writing that laughter, suddenly I saw Mavrin start to come apart. He’s someone who’s not used to adventure, and carries around a lot of guilt, and the act of genuinely laughing at something for the first time in days suddenly let out a bunch of other emotions I’m not sure I realized he was carrying. And all I could do was figure out how Eyasu and Deyeri would react to what quickly became one of the most heartfelt moments in the entire novel.
Had I tried to force the scene in a different direction, it would’ve produced something awkward and probably not as good. Instead, drafting that scene felt like alchemy more than writing—which means that when it happens again, I’ll know to trust my characters and let them take charge for a bit.
Brandon Crilly has been published by Daily Science Fiction, Apex Magazine, Fusion Fragment, Haven Spec and other markets. He’s also an Aurora Award-winning podcaster, reviewer, conference organizer, and snake parent to a delightful corn snake named Bob. His debut fantasy novel Catalyst came out in October 2022 from Atthis Arts.