Guest Post | Peter Orullian on When Characters Rebel, or It’s All by Design

About the Author

If you’re unfamiliar with Peter, you’ll find his creative endeavors come in two main thrusts: Writing and Music. Depending on the day, he’ll tell you one or the other is his favorite. Early on, a close third was athletics, baseball in particular. But somewhere along the line he became more a spectator than participant; that was about the time he began to write and make music in earnest.

As a writer, Peter tends to write the stories that occur to him and prove compelling, which means he writes in any number of genres. His published fiction is mostly fantasy and science fiction at this point, but he’s written a couple of thrillers he hopes to find homes for soon. At least one bestselling fiction writer has seen the outline of one of Peter’s unpublished novels—a more mainstream story—and thinks it’s bound to be his bestselling work. That book is on hold for now, though, as Peter ramps up a new fantasy series, THE VAULT OF HEAVEN.

Then as a musician, Peter’s tastes likewise run the gamut. There are few musical genres he doesn’t enjoy. So, while many might find easy stereotypes when they see Peter, those stereotypes are too narrow to accommodate the variety of his musical tastes. Which isn’t to say he doesn’t love rock music—he absolutely does!

Beyond these consuming interests, he currently works at Microsoft in the Interactive Entertainment Business (Xbox), loves the outdoors (with a fondness for the Rocky Mountains that he’ll never lose) and taking his Jeep deep into the back-country, but more than anything enjoys spending time with his family.

The Author’s Special Edition of The Unremembered was released on April 7, 2015
The second book in The Vault of Heaven series, Trial of Intentions, will be released on May 26, 2015
Both books are published by Tor.
Visit Peter’s website for more information.

When Characters Rebel, or It’s All by Design
By Peter Orullian

Once in while you’ll hear writers say that the characters they’re writing about won’t do what they want them to. Instead, the characters are making all these decisions contrary to what the writers intend.

It’s a romantic notion.

And I’m not sure I buy it.

I heard George R.R. Martin say on a panel I was lucky enough to sit on with him that: “Characters do what I tell them to.”

I tend to agree with George. But what is true is that characters will often surprise the reader. Writers will set reader expectations—sometimes, anyway—in order to violate them. In order to set up those twists and turns. Those delightfully unexpected surprises.

Sometimes what this means is that the character doesn’t do what the reader expects them to. Or maybe even what the reader wants them to. I, personally, love this tension, both as a reader and writer.

Let me ‘splain.

In my first book, The Unremembered, I use some of the conventions of the fantasy genre to set some reader expectations about who Tahn—one of my main characters—is and what he’ll do. As that book nears its end, the reader experiences a couple revelations about him that contradict those conventions (or tropes).

The wary reader will . . . well, they’ll be wary. As in, “What’s Orullian going to do next?”

That’s a deserving question, since in book two, Trial of Intentions, much of the rest of the trope is blown up. Though, to be fair, I do drop clues. For example, in the first chapter of The Unremembered, I have a “bad guy” say to one of Tahn’s guides, “You’ve tried this before.” In other words, Tahn isn’t the “chosen one,” he’s just the “next one.” And apparently, those who try this thing (I won’t give spoilers), mostly fail. Or die. Or both.

As to what I’m doing next? What exactly is getting blow up? Again, I hate to do spoilers. But if a reader is set up initially to believe a character is an orphan farm boy, start imagining scenarios where that’s pretty damn far from the truth.

Here are some leading questions to get you started:

  • What if instead of leading the world in an apocalyptic battle in an epic fantasy, a main character decided to try and avert war? Maybe using science?
  • What if instead of a farm boy and his affinity for stargazing, there’s something more scientific buried there? Something about real astronomy? And maybe a whole society of scientists?

And so I return to my first point about writers talking about characters not doing what they’re told. On the one hand, Tahn isn’t behaving as others (readers and in-world characters alike) think he should. In fact, the choices he makes might seem to put others in jeopardy. But as you get to know who he really is, those choices begin to make sense.

And it’s all by design.

One more example to illustrate my point.

In my series, I have a music magic system. It’s touched on in The Unremembered, but it goes on steroids in Trial of Intentions. By that, I mean that I go deep on how it works, and it moves into the spotlight. In particular, the character who possesses this ability . . . well, hers is a critical plot thread in the book.

What’s more is that the power of her song is not about sweet lullabies or clean, clear soprano tones. This a woman with what I call a dysphonic vocal technique. She can scream. If you want a sense of it, listen to Morgan Rose’s backing vocals for Sevendust. Then, imagine them sung with even more range.

The point is, most of the time, there’s something combative and aggressive about her song. And that’s a damn good thing—something you’ll understand if you read the books.

So then, returning again to my first point, Wendra (that’s the character’s name) is suffering through quite a lot of her own pain—loss of a child, nearly sold into human trafficking, and other nefarious things—while trying to control this song ability she possesses. And I’ll tell you this much, she doesn’t always succeed at controlling it. And there are dire consequences.

So she goes to train her voice. To try and learn control. And along this path the expectation grows that she’ll use her ability to do a good thing. A very good thing. A necessary thing. She’ll have to weigh that against another good thing. Another very good and necessary thing. And one of these two paths falls more in line with what the reader has learned about who she is.

The last paragraph of her story in Trial of Intentions delivers on this choice (her choice) and it has surprised many of my readers. I believe these readers were surprised because they expected (or wanted) Wendra to choose differently. But her choice is consistent with her character.

The good news is that all this sets the stage for what my advance readers are calling the best scenes in the series so far—in book three, wouldn’t you know. One hint: The path she chooses . . . Wendra kicks ass!

These delightful surprises, then? For my money, they’re not a result of the writer just willy-nilly having a character act contrary to her nature. Often, they’re a result of tension in the book that suggests a character should do one thing, when who she is suggests she do another. They’re a result of creative use of reader expectations.


And it’s all by design.


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