Friday, February 25, 2011

The One Surprise Rule

by Sara Rosett

I was on my way to pick up my daughter from school a few days ago and got behind a slow-turner. You know what I’m talking about. Someone who began braking way too early—about a quarter of a block away—and then executed the turn in a hesitant, rolling yield fashion. Since I couldn’t pass, I had to wait it out, creeping along behind Slow-Turner while traffic backed up behind me. In my rear view mirror, I could see the expression of the business-suited man in the car behind me and he wasn’t any taking it any better than I was.

On the whole, I’d say I’m a fairly patient and understanding person, but there are certain things that do drive me absolutely batty. Slow Turners are high on my list of pet peeves. Another thing that I can’t stand is when someone eats all the cereal or energy bars and leaves the empty box in the pantry. How hard is it to toss the box in the recycling? That way I don’t have my heart set on a Strawberry Poptart only to be disappointed when I pick up the empty box. And then there’s the ultimate in rudeness, people who are always on the phone. I’ve heard women carrying on phone conversations in restroom stalls—that’s just too much information for me!

Since I’m a writer it’s probably not surprising that I have some strong opinions about books and writing. I hate it when a book’s cover has absolutely nothing to do with the story. I lose patience with authors who tease readers with possible resolutions (to love triangles or backstories), but never provide any satisfaction. I think that my all time book-related pet peeve is quirky characters who are too quirky. There’s nothing wrong with colorful characters. They enliven books and can be a great source of comic relief. They’re also a great foil for the main character, who is usually more tame than the quirky character. Quirky character may be just what an author needs to nudge her protagonist into the action. Or, perhaps Quirky character runs into danger and the protagonist has to follow to save Quirky and, thus, the protagonist is in a situation that he or she would never willingly enter—the protagonist has been dragged into it and the story revs up. But it seems that sometimes authors layer so many quirks and peculiarities onto one character that I think, no one could ever be that strange.

I was very aware of this fine line when I created the characters for MINT JULEPS, MAYHEM, AND MURDER. Ellie, a military spouse and professional organizer, is hosting the annual family reunion for her in-law’s family, the Averys, a quirky southern family. (In publishing, southern equals quirky. I know there are tons of normal, run-of-the-mill families who live in the south that don’t have peculiarities, but this is fiction and readers what a few quintessentially quirky characters if the book has a southern setting.)

So…how to create a family that had a few interesting, eccentric members, but didn’t cross over the line into unbelievably? I started with a cast of characters—normal people who have hopes and desires as well as joy and pain in their lives and then added what one speaker at my first writer’s conference called The Surprise. A character always needs a surprise. Not fifteen surprises. One is usually enough. The speaker said that people in real life are always surprising us and I realized how true her words were. As I get to know people, I always find out something that intrigues me or that I wouldn’t have guessed.

I applied the One Surprise Rule to the Avery clan. I started with the patriarch, Grandpa Franklin, a man with white hair, a stooped gait, and a sharp gaze. He loves to read westerns, histories, and biographies. The surprise: he likes to tell tall tales. He can spin a yarn—even about a trip to the store—and draw in his listeners, convincing them that every word is absolute truth. Next up, was his daughter Christine. A never-married, retired kindergarten teacher, she is sweet and nurturing. She is the one in the family who keeps an eye on Grandpa Franklin, running him to his doctor appointments and the store. She checks on him everyday. The surprise: she’s dating the local pharmacist, who has introduced her to treasure hunting. She and her beau have state-of-the-art metal detectors and spend weekends looking for civil war bullets and coins. Christine’s sister, Nanette, is a starchy, no-nonsense kind of woman who worked for years as the office manager of Gardner’s concrete, never tolerating slacking off, swearing, or anything else she deemed unseemly. The surprise: she’s an Anglophile. She has a great interest all things English from Medieval history to the current royal family. She drives a Mini Cooper emblazoned with the British flag. Probably my favorite character turned out to be Bud, the tough, older brother of the family. He’s a wealthy real estate broker who has always lived in a double wide. He has a phoenix tattoo on his forearm and wears flannel shirts, jeans, and baseball caps, regardless of the weather. The surprise: he’s an anonymous philanthropist, supporting kid sports teams in his town.

I introduced these characters in MINT JULEPS, MAYHEM, AND MURDER, then was able to explore them in more depth in the next book, MIMOSAS, MISCHIEF, AND MURDER, when Ellie goes to visit her in-laws in Alabama. I like the way the One Surprise Rule worked out in those two books. I’d love to hear about your favorite quirky characters. Is there a limit to how strange a character can get before you can’t suspend your disbelief?


Sara Rosett is the author of the Ellie Avery mysteries. MINT JULEPS, MAYHEM, AND MURDER, will be available in paperback on March 1, 2011. You can learn more about Sara and her books at