Surprise! A Way to Develop Character

On our first day in Paris during a family vacation, we were hit with a number of surprises. It got me thinking that the element of surprise is a great device to develop the characters in a novel. Using my own experiences as examples, I’ve categorized them into three types: observational, experiential and thwarted expectations.

Observational surprises can be physical or a change in self-awareness. For example, during our airplane descent, I caught a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower and the structure a reddish brown, not silver as I had expected. I also notice a change in my typical behavior. I’ve been accused of planning every second of vacation time. A reputation I have earned over the years. I had a plan of attack for activities our family would do on arrival. My husband and I had worked on this itinerary for months. Instead, during our first day, we left our rented apartment and randomly walked the streets. Rather than being disappointed in the change of plans, I felt a strange sense of freedom.

Experiential surprises are those that I define as those derived from interactions with people or things. In Paris, I was totally caught off guard when a French woman asked me for directions. Another experiential surprise was how much I enjoyed taking photos of my family imitating poses on statues. Here we are in Paris, looking at the Louvre and Norte Dame, and that silliness will be a highlight of my first day in Paris.

Thwarted expectations are surprises that are unpleasant. Our shuttle driver in Paris was 20 minutes late in meeting us, during which time I kept thinking we were either waiting in the wrong area or we’d been scammed (we’d prepaid). I had not used the restroom and when our driver said it would only take 20 to 30 minutes to get to our apartment, I decided to wait. Two hours later, and I suspect several wrong turns later, we arrived and then I had to wait even longer for the apartment key. Also, I went in search of lunch and the crepes I brought back for were blackened on one side. Not overdone, but charred. I was famished and ate them anyway. But I expected the food in Paris to be perfect. But it got me pondering the question what a given character in a novel would do – storm back to the restaurant and ask for his or her money back? Throw the crepes in the garbage and shrug it off? Take his anger/disappointment out on his or her family?

Which of these categories do you think is the most valuable for character development?


One Response to Surprise! A Way to Develop Character

  1. Fran Cain says:

    Great food for thought. How do we as well as our characters respond to surprise—like a blizzard for Halloween! So…were you able to give directions to the French woman?

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