Writing Predictable/Unpredictable Characters

All novelists must portray their lead characters in both predictable and unpredictable ways. By digging into what sorts of predictable unpredictability that readers look for in a character, you can increase reader engagement.

Writing Tip for Today: Let’s discuss some tips for refining your character according to predictable/unpredictable traits and actions.

Predictable, not Stereotypical

A character who comes off as stereotypical is shallow, apt to do and say things right out of central casting. If your character is too predictable, he/she will bore your reader.

Think of that elusive goal we all want: A page turner readers can’t put down. If your character is too predictable, readers don ‘t need to keep turning pages. They already know what will happen. A two-dimensional character is likely short on the deep emotions and motivations that drive both the character and the readers.

Aim for predictability in your reader’s emotional response. Donald Maass has called this the “emotional gut punch,” meaning it hits readers where they can’t help but feel strongly. That’s the sort of predictability every effective character must possess. See Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel for examples of this technique.

Surprise Your Readers

We need that emotional predictability in our characters, but that doesn’t mean everything can be surmised. Readers delight in being surprised. One way to do this is to turn scenes on their heads.

Instead of writing a scene that follows logically, try forcing your character to do the thing he/she is most afraid of. By placing your character in unexpected situations, readers will be more likely to stay interested.

According to Donald Maass in Writing Twenty-first Century Fiction, “Engineering surprise starts with the event, then works backward to build a contrary explanation.” If you lay the groundwork for the emotion you want readers to have, you must build it slowly, far in advance of the event.

Unpredictable Satisfaction

So far, we’ve talked about how the only predictable reactions we want from readers are strong emotions that force them to keep reading. The best way to do this is to dig deep into your character and uncover the deepest desires (goals), fears, hopes and dreams.

You can use off-manuscript exercises such as having your character write a letter to you, expressing those things. Deliberately place your character in a scene which forces him/her to face a big fear. Put in a scene where the character has the opposite reaction than is predicted.

By combining predictable (emotions relating to reader identification) with unpredictable scenes, actions or reactions, readers will be more likely to stay engaged with the story. Knowing when to write predictably and/or unpredictably can elevate your novel and result in high reader satisfaction.

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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