The vet who takes care of Mom’s animals, and who took care of my animals when I had animals, was, as we say around here, flabbergasted when he found out I write science fiction. He said, “I always thought science fiction was written by science nerds who like quantum physics and stuff.” I said, “I am a science nerd who likes quantum physics and stuff.”
I gave him a copy of OTHER EARTH, OTHER STARS. I don’t know if he’s read any of it, but I see it in his office. Every once in a while, when I bring an animal in, he shakes his head and says, “I wouldn’t have pegged you for a science fiction writer.”
No, I haven’t asked him why he wouldn’t have pegged me for a science fiction writer, because I’m terrified he would say, “You’re just so stupid! How could such a stupid person write science fiction? It’s amazing!”
ANYWAY, MY POINT IS, sometimes people defy our expectations.
Like, our #4 Daughter, the fantabulous Sara Marian, used to work in a bookstore that ran campaigns where they would ask customers at checkout if they would like to buy a children’s book to donate to a child who wouldn’t otherwise have any books of their own. Nobody would ever ask the motorcycle dudes, but she did. She said they would almost always melt and say SURE! She didn’t impose negative expectations on them because they looked like people nobody ought to be messing with. She wasn’t messing with them; she was treating them like human beings.
It works both ways, of course. Sometimes somebody who seems nice or harmless turns out to be dangerously bad. I’ve known more than one marriage (not, thank God, my own) that seemed like happily-ever-after before the wedding, but….
And sometimes, like with me and what I write, it’s just that people stick you in a certain box and then wrap it all up with expectations for the box, like the sweet little white-haired lady at my church who cracked me up when she said, in her soft little voice, “I was out working in the garden when it started to rain, so I said, ‘Oh, crap!’ and went in.” I didn’t expect that, even though Betty White has made a career of looking sweet and acting salty.
So don’t be afraid to give your character some outside-the-boxishness. It doesn’t have to be like He’s a cold-blooded Ninja assassin — AND AN AID IN A PEDIATRIC CANCER WARD! Just maybe toss in a little something the reader wouldn’t have expected. If you do it properly, it gives the character more reality. You don’t need to ask yourself, “What’s the most unexpected thing there could be about this character?” just, “What’s something a stereotyper wouldn’t expect from this character?”
What’s your favorite expectation-defying example from literature or film/television? Mine is Sawyer on Lost being a reader.
A WRITING PROMPT FOR YOU: Give one of your characters an unexpected turn or sidelight.