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Help—My Character Stole My Car Keys!

Car Keys
You know that feeling while walking when you come to an unseen or unanticipated step or curb, and your foot, rather than landing on the expected solid ground going forward, instead free-falls downward in a body-lurching lunge? Your senses and your system were geared to the expectation of solidity and firm footing; when the rug of expectations is pulled out from under our feet, we lose our balance. And that loss illustrates that odd sense of innocent trust in that what’s gone before will continue ever onward.

I want to discuss expectation and the breaking thereof in the context of writing, but first, two stories: this week I’m going down to Southern California to help move my mom out of her house—the house I grew up in—and into assisted living. She really doesn’t want to go. She’s had costly 24-hour care at home for a long while, but there’s no money left, so the house has to go on the market. That rips me up.

So, here we have my mother, who has declared for years that she’s going to die in that house, and expected that nothing would change that. But she also never expected to live into her 90s, and she never expected that the money would run out—she trusted in time’s justice, and in the gentle flow of days, one much like the last. So now she’s stepped off a high curb, and since she’s almost blind, she couldn’t see the fall ahead. Neither did our family: we expected everything to be fine. Our mom, in our house, forever.


When Your Mac Goes on the Attack
And the next story, less wrenching of my emotions than my mother’s troubles, and more the exasperation that can come from dull expectation being jostled. I bought my girlfriend Alice’s Macbook Pro about seven months ago, after Apple replaced its logic board due to a known flaw. Because that’s the higher cortex of a computer, and because it had been replaced so recently, I expected that Mac would sing brightly in the shower for some years to come.


Seven months of calm computing set my expectation rug firmly in the center of the room. So when the logic board failed again, a month ago, that rug’s sharp slippage to the corner tossed me off balance. And when the then-recent backup I had made corrupted some files of mine, so that I couldn’t fully restore the backup to the new machine, my clean new computing experience was clouded. Expectations, they’re two-faced tricksters.

So, I have no advice at all on how to combat the artificial security of expectation in your life, other than by saying expect the worst, and what kind of advice is that? I know I’ll fall off that curb again, because life’s rhythms work that way. But what might be useful in your writing world is knowing how to use both a character’s and a reader’s expectations to your advantage.

Curb-Dropping Your Characters
I’m cribbing a bit from something I’d published elsewhere, but if you’ve written a character in a story that’s perceived a certain way by all the other characters in the story, having that character behave in a contrary or contradictory way can give zing a bolt of electricity into the tale. Of course you can’t use this as a machination that puts a false or newly contrived face on your characters—readers would then be more annoyed than attracted. Character roads shouldn’t precipitously go off cliffs or wrenchingly veer back without some road signs, however subtle, that give the driving reader a shot at surviving (and enjoying!) the story.

I’m talking about turns in a tale so that any presumed character deviations and tilts can seem to be a reasonable (or if unreasonable, at least credible in context) expression of that character. There’s dramatic value in both torquing the presumptions of your readers, and in warping those of your characters in your story. Regarding pulling the rug on your reader’s presumptions, I’m not talking about something heavy-handedly overt, like revealing a most unlikely character as the murderer late in a mystery, or having it found out that a brain tumor was the reason your protagonist was a kleptomaniac.

If only late in a tale we read that rampaging Godzilla has a soft spot in his heart for rabbits and spares only them from vaporization with his habanero breath, that’s not tilting at presumption’s windmills, but more like manipulating the wind.

I’m suggesting that every character persona has layers, hidden motivations, checked dreams, such that a staid accountant in your novel might be shown later to work nightly on carving an exquisite chess set of fantasy figures from The Hobbit. Breaking character expectations can push a story off a curb for both the other characters—reacting to that push—in the tale, and for readers as well.

My Character Dry-Cleaned My Purse
Many writers have expressed surprise when one of their characters makes decisions or takes action in a tale that the writer hadn’t quite foreseen—if it works for the story, it’s gratifying when your characters dumbfound you. It’s never enlightening when we only work with the surface, superficial, or expected elements and themes. This same mechanism can work in business writing as well, and it’s often seen in a humorous context: humor does flip a pizza at you when you expected a pancake. Or maybe flips a penguin at you. Surprising the reader in a way that deepens the spices of the story—whether novel or advertisement—is a good thing.

I’ll be wrestling with my presumptions and prejudices about people all of my life (and lulling myself to sleep with my own expectations), but when you can do it purposefully and perceptively on a page, it might end up being called art.

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One thought on “Help—My Character Stole My Car Keys!

  1. Someone finally explained to me (in a manner I could understand) that The Black Swan is about building resilience, even anticipation, of the unknown, the unknowable, into our life and business.

    Easier said, obviously, but at the very least, knowing black swans are possible gives us an edge over those who declare them imaginary.

    We continue to keep your mom’s situation in mind. Unimaginable emotional disruption, which if course, you don’t have to imagine.

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