Mumble-mumble-cough years ago, back in my high school days, I was what you might have called a hopeless romantic—in the doe-eyed, day-dreamy way of those who have yet to actually experience romance, let alone real hopelessness. At my bedside was a faux wood clock radio, and every night after my lights were out, I’d curl up in the glow of its red neon time display and tune the dial to “Delilah After Dark.”
I don’t suppose I’ll regain any of the street cred that admission might have just lost me by going on to tell you that even then, the show was far sappier than I was. Still, I liked hearing bits and pieces of other people’s stories as they called in with their requests and dedications. The writer in me liked to supply missing backstory and imagine potential outcomes as the ballads would play in between the calls.
There was a lot of Celine Dion on “Delilah” in those days. Whitney Houston. Boyz II Men. Sometimes I took issue with the song selections, but hey, she was the expert, not me. “Slow down and love someone,” Delilah would remind us over and over, her voice dripping with understanding and hope.
And then one night, a woman called about a troubled relationship, an on-again-off-again sort of thing. I don’t remember the details, but as usual, Delilah empathetically wished her a speedy resolution and told her to stay on the line while she cued up the perfect melody. The opening notes of the song began to play, and the microphone was supposed to shut off then.
But it didn’t. And so the voice that sounded through the darkness of my bedroom was Delilah’s, but it was different. It was the Delilah who existed off the air.
“You know, the real problem,” Delilah told the woman (I’m paraphrasing here, but this was the gist of it), “is that this man is a selfish asshole.”
I bolted up in bed, wide-eyed. A slow smile crept across my face. Holy technical glitch, Batman. The curator of the museum of cheesy love songs just called someone a selfish asshole on the air. I looked around at my stuffed animals, the only other witnesses on the scene. “DID YOU HEAR THAT?” I wanted to say to someone, anyone else. I laughed. I shook my head. I couldn’t wait to find out what was going to happen next. Surely the producers knew what had happened?
Sure enough, after the song, she came back on the air, with a sheepish apology that what we heard was meant to be a private conversation. She tried to move on, business as usual.
But I still want to squeal in delight when I think about it. Because that was the point I stopped being interested in the callers and started being interested in Delilah. Clearly there was more to her than that sugary sweet voice.
I wanted another glimpse.
Calling Character Into Question
In my day job editing Writer’s Digest, I see a lot of craft articles and pitches cross my desk on the subject of character. The vast majority of them advise writers to make sure each character acts and speaks in accordance with his unique persona. Sound enough advice. But I see precious few reminders that as long as you've established who each character is (and that is a pretty important as long as—think of how easily you can conjure Delilah’s comfortable, soft on-air persona), a departure from acting in character can be far more powerful.
My novel Almost Missed You, forthcoming from St. Martin’s Press in March, starts with someone doing something completely out of character. Finn Welsh, by all accounts a devoted husband and father, packs up and leaves his wife, Violet, in the middle of a family vacation—and takes their son with him. Poof: Both are gone without a trace.
Everyone thought this couple had a perfect marriage, the kind of love that’s meant to be. Violet is blindsided, and so is the reader. How could he do such a thing? “This doesn’t sound like Finn,” all their friends and family say. “There must be some mistake.”
Everything is immediately called into question. And it’s not long before the characters and the readers are both asking themselves: Is this out of character, with some bizarre circumstance forcing his hand? Or did no one know his true character after all? Is the boy safe with him? How can Violet get her son back?
The people in his life want to find out. They need to find out. Too much is at stake not to.
Acting out of character doesn’t have to drive an entire story forward, though it can. It can also add a twist, a turn, a layer of interest at any point in your arc. This can work equally well with protagonists, antagonists and even supporting players.
- A man known for having a lead foot gets a speeding ticket on the interstate. He complains to his friends, who laugh and point out that he’d long had it coming.
- A relatively sedate woman is caught going 45 in a school zone, during an hour she was supposed to be at work. Whoa, what was her hurry?
A traffic ticket is a relatively run-of-the-mill occurrence, yet even so, our interest is piqued.
- A known philanderer hits on a coworker at the office Christmas party.
- A father of three who is so devoted to his wife it's almost a running joke has too much to drink and corners the new hire in the elevator. (Or did he really have that much to drink after all?)
Which do you want to learn more about?
- A bully pushes your kid down during a fight on the playground and breaks his arm.
- Your kid's best friend pushes him down during a fight on the playground and breaks his arm.
It's the out-of-character behavior that raises the question, "But why?"
And that's what keeps people reading.
The next time you feel like your story needs some jazz, see if your characters might be acting a little too in character. Send in that caller who will make them slip and show their true colors on the air.
Your readers will find themselves smiling in the dark, delighted and eager to find out what happens next.
What's your favorite "surprise" for your characters or characters in books you've particularly enjoyed?
Jessica Strawser is the editorial director of Writer’s Digest, North America’s leading publication for aspiring and working writers since 1920. Her debut novel, Almost Missed You, is forthcoming from St. Martin’s Press in March 2017 and has garnered accolades from Chris Bohjalian, Adriana Trigiani, Garth Stein and others.