So, this Labor Day morning has not gone as I expected. I woke up to the sound -- so I thought -- of someone showering in the hall bathroom. I didn't have to get up right away, so I was still relaxing in bed when one of our children came in. She told me that the upstairs bathroom toilet was overflowing and that the floor was soaked. That sounded bad.
I realized it was worse when I walked downstairs and saw torrents of water running through the ceiling into our kitchen. But, as they say, wait... there's more.
The basement also had water flowing into it from its ceiling.
We've taken a first pass at cleaning up and are waiting for a service company to come out to help with the damage as I type this post. I'm not writing this up for sympathy (though I'd certainly accept any sent my way) but because in considering this morning I realized it provides a valuable lesson for writers. See what I mean, past the jump...
As fiction writers, we put a lot of obstacles in our characters' way. I think there's a tendency, though, to have those obstacles relate directly to the main thrust of the story or characters. Sometimes we can complicate our characters' lives even further by forcing them to deal with the unexpected.
Imagine a police detective investigating a crime. She gets a call from home saying that, oh, I don't know... a toilet has overflowed and there's a rainstorm in her kitchen. She hurries home and deals with the mess. While she's showering after cleaning up, she misses a phone call. It's from an informant she'd been trying to track down. She gets his voice mail, which is vague. Before they can connect back up, someone kills the informant.
Your character's day has just gone from bad to worse to even worse, right? Not only does it allow you an extra plot twist, but it increases the mental strain the character is under. She can continue to have to deal with repair crews throughout the rest of your story, forcing her to split her energies. One more benefit of this: it can give your readers something extra to relate to about your characters. They may never have had to try to find a serial killer or bank robber, but plenty of people have had to deal with a plumbing crisis.
There are other types of disasters you could throw at characters by surprise. Maybe you have a research team rushing to find a cure for a disease. They're based on the outskirts of Kansas City. A tornado rips through, forcing them to stop their work and killing power to their building. Now they have to race to secure important biological materials before the generator dies.
Like any technique, it's possible to overdo this or do it poorly. I'd probably avoid giving characters more than one major random setback in a story, or else readers might start to feel like they're seeing your hand directing the action against the characters. And if your climax depends on such a random event it could feel like a deus ex machina type of device to readers.
Life doesn't always go where we expect it to. Adding a bit of the unexpected to your characters' lives can enhance your stories.