Hello, writers. I’m gonna talk about character because it’s important, and not because I actually know anything about it. Your thoughts on the subject are most welcome.
Character is why we read. We’re interested in people. We want to be inside someone else’s head and know what the world looks like through their eyes—we’ve wanted it ever since that moment in childhood when we realized it would never happen, that we were prisoners of our own point of view, life sentence, no parole.
Characters should be complicated. They aren’t always, but they should be. They should experience conflict. Conflict isn’t a good term, because it makes it sound like it has to happen between two people, like squabbling with our siblings. But conflict can also be between a character and his own beliefs, between a character and a virus, between a character and the inexorable laws of physics.
If you start with your character clinging to the edge of the proverbial cliff, her conflict is with gravity. But maybe she intended to jump off the cliff because she had a fight (aka conflict) with her husband. Only she doesn’t really want to die (conflict with herself) so she’s hanging on. And she only went over because a strong wind (conflict with nature) or a terrorist or an over-friendly dog knocked her over.
But let’s leave that character, because she’s not really that interesting. She gave up at the outset. We don’t like that much. Faced with confict, characters need to grit their teeth and keep going. Walk through the fire. When you’re going through hell, keep on going. We humans adore this quality in each other (and ourselves). In every culture I’ve moved in, which is a few, it is admired.
Conflict Between Right and Wrong
We are all right all the time. No one is ever wrong. Both of our recent domestic terrorists truly believe that they did the right thing. That’s how wrong a person can be and still think he’s right.
So what if your character discovers that what he thinks is right is completely different from a moral code that he’s been taught? Say he’s a fundamentalist. What experiences (conflicts) could he have that would make him question his beliefs? (You can’t say "none", even if it’s true, because that’s not much of a story.) Or what if he doesn’t doubt the rightness of what he’s been taught, but has to flout it in order to do what seems more right? In Mark Twain’s story Was It Heaven? Or Hell?, two old ladies who have never told a lie in their lives end up lying to a mother and daughter about each other’s terminal illnesses.
In most stories right and wrong are embodied in two different people-- Harry and Voldemort-- but the story is more interesting if you add internal conflict as well. I always had a problem with Voldy doing what he does because he’s "evil". You so seldom meet anyone who’s all like, "Hi, I’m evil." Much more common is a guy whose idea of good happens to be diametrically opposed to everyone else’s.
(Such guys, by the way, will crop up now and then in writer’s groups. They write stories in which the main character catches someone stealing the cookies from his lunchbox, and murders them, because who wouldn't.)
If evil is in the story, then your character has to be tempted by it (which Harry never is).
Genuine inner conflict will make your character memorable. ...Readers seek to resolve it. They will mentally talk to your heroine, trying to make her happy. They will imagine scenes in which things come out better for your poor protagonist.
--Donald Maass, Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook
Conflict and Change
People change. People don’t change. Those are two sayings you hear from time to time. Well, we do and we don’t. I have the same core beliefs I had 25 years ago, but I’m a lot less likely to yell at (or even speak to) total strangers who don’t share them.
Your character has to change, though. She goes through hell, she keeps on going, but she is not the same passenger who left the station (that’s a bit of T.S. Eliot, this is a high class diary). Having her beliefs challenged, having to do things she always thought she couldn’t, shouldn’t or wouldn’t, will change her. Ideally for the better.
(This is especially true in kiddylit, where I hang out. The kiddylit of two generations ago didn’t require it: Nancy Drew and Danny Dunn didn’t have to change. But modern children’s characters, even if they’re living in the 12th century, are supposed to come up against it and be different as a result.)
Maybe you can’t really plan your character’s change in advance. It might not become apparent till you’ve finished the first draft—it wasn’t till after his encounter with the dog on the railroad tracks that Jack realized it was wrong to bomb that federal building and kill all those people. Then you go back and map the stages of the change. It didn’t happen all at once. There was a hint here, and here, and here—you get it all lined up.
Characters and Suffering
Most of us are nice people. And we liberals hate to see anyone suffer when we could be doing something to prevent it. That makes us tend to give our characters fire-proof boots to walk through hell in, or to build them a special hell-bypass, or to have them just look at the tourist brochures for hell and decide not to go.
Get over that. Your character is going through hell because we all do. And look on the bright side-- maybe he'll provide a useful roadmap for someone else.
It doesn't have to be total hell. Not everyone he knows has to die. But something I do about 10-20,000 words in is stop and make a list of guns I've hung on the wall. They all have to be fired off. Anything that threatens your character, or her family, or her society, or her beliefs, has to become more than a threat at some point. It has to be carried through to its logical conclusion. If there's a deadly plague running around, she or someone close to her should catch it. If the first amendment's been abolished, or the Spanish Inquisition is in town*, that has to have real consequences.
Which brings us back to conflict. It's easy to look at your character and her nemesis and say, "Geez, if they would both be a little more reasonable, they could work this out without any hurt feelings, casualties, or the accidental detonation of world nuclear annihilation in chapter 6." This is great stuff to apply to your personal life but not so good for writing. Your characters are not reasonable people. They have too much at stake here. And if they don't have too much at stake, figure out why not, and fix it so that they do.
*nobody expected it
Write On! will be a regular Thursday feature (8 pm ET) until it isn't. Be sure to check out other great lit'ry diaries like:
sarahnity's books by kossacks on Tuesday nights
plf515's What Are You Reading? on Wednesday mornings.
cfk's Bookflurries on Wednesday nights.
Nathan Bransford offers a Revision Checklist for your novel. I agree with everything except the voice thing. What's wrong with chatty? He also has some interesting thoughts on character, specifically what he calls redeemability.
Some interesting Q & A from Editorial Anonymous about submissions.
Btw a good book about character is Nancy Kress's Dynamic Characters.