Surprise Aspect of Character’s Personality

Tobias garden of the N. Am martyrs

Jack Heffron’s The Writer’s Idea Book, p.229, a prompt involves showing an aspect of a character’s personality that readers haven’t seen before in the novel. For example, if a character has been kind, considerate, and does everything right, show the opposite in a crucial scene.

Heffron talks about Tobias Wolff’s Mary, “In the Garden of the North American Martyrs” where his character is “very nervous about landing a job teaching history at a college”. She’s been “agreeable, despite feeling a bit bullied by the hiring committee. In her final interview…she attacks, recounting the atrocities committed by Iroquois Indians, describing in detail their methods of torture. The chairman of the committee tries to stop her speech, but she persists, switching to the tone of a righteous prophet.”

The character finally stands up for herself and the reader sees more depth in her. She presented “the surprising side to her personality” because she had been pushed to that point by old “hurts and losses that have nothing to do with the committee.”

I highly recommend Wolff’s story. I read it years ago. Thanks to Jack Heffron for not only reminding me of that story but giving a prompt for deepening our character with a surprising aspect of personality.


Filed under Characters

4 responses to “Surprise Aspect of Character’s Personality

  1. tandaclauson

    My main character showed a surprising aspect of his personality only a few chapters into my novel. I was promptly told by everyone in my critique group that, no, that was impossible, that character would never do that , and that I would have to rewrite the entire scene. My problem was that without that character flaw, the entire novel would unravel until there was nothing left. So, what was I to do? I went back and rewrote our introduction to the protagonist, and made the unpredictable – predictable. I’m still miffed. I guess I’m not one of those people who like everything wrapped up in a neat little box (life’s not like that). But my critique group is happy.


    • A surprise aspect shouldn’t be a trick surprise, not that I think yours might have been. But if the surprise makes some sense, it’s usually accepted. For instance, Jill is an introvert with few friends. She wouldn’t all of a sudden run for mayor. But when a family member is in trouble, she conq1uors her fears and helps to solve the problem even if it puts her in danger. See what I mean? Now I’m curious of the before and after with the surprise in your chapter.


  2. ladywinfred

    Thank you for reminding me about Heffron’s Writers Idea Book. It’s not doing me one bit of good on my bookshelf, is it? And I’m intrigued by what you said about Wolff’s story and want to read it. A great two-fer post!!



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