Surprise, Surprise! Characters with a Mind of Their Own -OR- How I Was Scared Off of Being a “Pantzer” for the Rest of my Life

By Micah Persell, author of Of Eternal Life and Of the Knowledge of Good and Evil

Of the Knowledge of Good and EvilYou know how if you ask someone from Michigan where they’re from, they’ll point to a part of their hand? Or how if you meet someone new in the South, they ask who your daddy is (not at all ironically) so they can figure out if they know your kin? Well, we authors have a similar get-to-know-you idiosyncrasy. Upon meeting other writers, we often ask, “So, are you a plotter or a pantzer?” What we mean is, do you plot out your entire story before writing (plotter), or do you fly by the seat of your pants and let the story lead the way (pantzer).

When I first started writing, I was a proud pantzer. I was writing Of Eternal Life, and it was flowing like magic from my brain to the page. I was slapping down thousands of words a day with nary a hint of writer’s block in sight. It was epic.

And then, the unthinkable happened. One of my good-guys, my heroine Abilene’s best friend Dahlia, turned out to be a…not-good-guy. Abilene made a phone call that I knew was going to end up with her being captured, and low and behold, Dahlia was the party on the other side.

I won’t go into the details of how I reacted. Let’s just say it was bad. Chocolate binge, blaring sad rock anthem, sit in a corner and ponder the meaning of life bad.
Luckily, I had a chapter meeting of Romance Writers of America around that time. I was sitting at my table, pouting whilst I took notes, and then the speaker said the greatest thing: “Every hero has weaknesses; every villain has reasons.”

The clouds parted. My writer-tantrum evaporated. Every villain has reasons? I ask myself. I just so happen to have a villain. I’d like to know her reasons…

That day, I decided to make Dahlia the heroine of my next book. I knew it was going to be risky—we as readers want to look up to our heroine. We want to watch her defeat the bad guy, not be the bad guy. But I just knew that Dahlia had a fabulous story. Women aren’t often violent criminals (although the TV show Snapped could convince anyone otherwise). Something pretty…horrible had to have happened to Dahlia to lead her to make the choices she made. I wanted to know what this horrible thing was, and I wanted to fix it for her.

So I gave her a hero she would absolutely despise on sight, but need more than she could ever begin to guess: Jericho. He’s the perfect yang to her yin. She’s evil; he’s good. He’s compassionate; she’s merciless. He’d die for love; she’d rather die than love.
They were…very fun to watch. And of course, they balance each other out perfectly and come out better people because of their love—which is what every good relationship should do, in my humble opinion.

But I turned into a religious, meticulous plotter. You should see my office—it’s covered floor to ceiling with plot maps, internal/external conflict, character archetypes, etc. I will never again be surprised by a character, and that’s a great relief.

However, if I were to be honest, I’m really glad that Dahlia was able to pull one over on me. She turned out pretty cool.

Do you love it or hate it when the characters in the books you’re reading do something so surprising it makes you question everything you thought you knew about them? Share your feelings in the comments!