We as readers like to be surprised, but not all at once.
Readers like to have expectations which are then turned on their heads. I’m sure you know that. That’s what plot twists are about, that’s what the gee-whiz factor of an idea is about. We go into a book expecting one thing, and when we’re surprised, we get excited.
But not exactly. We like to be blown-out-of-the-water surprised, in the sense that as far as we fly after the explosion, we’re going to land back in some water somewhere. We don’t like to get blown-into-bitty-pieces surprised, or blown-into-outer-space surprised. What do I mean by this? We like to be surprised, but not all at once.
If you pick up a romance, read the first quarter, and decide that you’re enjoying it, that’s great. If the beginning of the second half turns the romance into zombie apocalypse, it would be surprising. It would also be blown-into-outer-space not okay. You picked up the book expecting a romance. You got a romance for about the first half. Then it turned into a dark, raw horror story. “Bill, you aren’t the man I fell in love with! At first I thought you loved me for my personal charm and good looks, but it turns out you’re only after my brains!”
We like small surprises that subvert our expectations while still satisfying our desires. That’s the basis of a good plot twist. Even though the main character’s sister eloping with the local surgeon blows you out of the water, you’re still reading a romance novel— you land back in the water.
The same thing happens, in a character sense, with diverse characters.
When we start reading, we have defaults. We assume characters are certain things, based on the stereotypes we’ve seen in life and fiction. You can easily imagine this turning into a discussion about gender, or race, or any of that, but I’m not going to talk about that. I’m talking about animals.
The movie I’ll use as an example is Guardians of the Galaxy, but you don’t need to have seen it to understand. The character I’m talking about is Rocket, the raccoon. If you’ve seen Prince Caspian, you can substitute Reepicheep almost perfectly.
Rocket is a raccoon. You already expect something from him— what is it? That he’s small, and fluffy, and in general harmless. (Yes, raccoons can do damage, but that’s not what I mean.) The moment Rocket walks onscreen, you’ve made a decision about him. He can’t fight. He isn’t worth the same as the rest of the cast. If you’re lining up for dodgeball, you know who you don’t want on your team.
In fantasy and science fiction, however, we have the sublime ability to subvert expectations all over the place. However, people don’t tend to believe us at first. We can proclaim Rocket’s greatness all we want, but everyone will think it’s a joke. A raccoon is not powerful, or valuable on a team. But this is science fiction— Rocket can be as powerful as he wants. At the end of the story, he’ll probably be the one to save everyone’s bacon. Silly earthlings, thinking raccoons can’t do any damage. That’s the best way to do it, right? At the end of the story, bust him out as the secret weapon.
We want to be surprised, but in the end, we want to feel as though we could have seen it coming. We want to be blown out of the water, then land back in water as we realize: the writers were setting this up the entire time. Raccoons didn’t come out of nowhere and become amazing— this one is special.
Here’s the deal. If you’re going to subvert stereotypes like this, with raccoons or gender or race or whatever you want, you need to do it early and often. If it plays a big part in your finale, it needs to be even earlier and oftener. Within the first fifteen minutes of the movie, we see Rocket doing things no raccoon should be able to do— that’s one thing. Within the first thirty minutes, we see him break out of a prison, create or appropriate several pieces of weaponry, and use all of it to great effect. Is it a surprise at the end when he saves everyone’s bacon? It’s a long-term surprise rather than a sudden one, but it makes room for any other, better plot twists that you can think up.
If you have a character whose appearance or stereotypes contradict their actual qualities, it isn’t enough to throw this at them at the last second. You need to subvert that expectation again, and again, and again, throughout the story. If you’re looking for a plot twist, create it at the end of that string— without it, you’re subverting too much expectation all at once.
Rocket is a raccoon who builds guns and escapes from prisons. Throughout the entire movie, he does this consistently— at the end, however, he turns out to have more of a heart than he seems at first. Because the big expectations have been subverted already, we can accept the better, more punchy plot twist with less annoyance.
I used a raccoon for an example. Reepicheep is a mouse, and works on a similar arc. You can conquer sexism or racism with the same technique, many times— any question of equality, no matter how large or small, works with this template. All of it boils down to characters. No matter what the person’s race, gender, or species, this works. If you’re trying to get past a certain expectation so you can make a better plot twist, subvert the expectation again and again until you don’t have to anymore— then slam in the plot twist. That simple trail makes it a lot easier to swallow.
Have fun. Someday I’ll boil down the entire cast of Prince Caspian into their specific character arcs.