Vision: A Resource for Writers
By Valerie Comer
haracters: we cannot tell a story without them. In today's publishing climate, most novels are driven by the characters, not by the plot. The plot is extremely important, of course, but most readers are first and foremost looking for a character with which to identify. This must be someone that the reader comes quickly to care about. The plot and the character must be twined about each other so thoroughly that they cannot be separated. Yes, the character can go on to have further adventures, but this precise plot could not have happened to anyone else.
Your characters must seem human, even if they're not. This means that they have strengths and weaknesses, and that they sometimes fail. Usually, throughout a novel, they must also change. How can such a character be formed?
Creating this type of character is far more complex than assigning her an eye color and a personality trait, such as shyness. Let's take that trait for a moment. Many people are shy. A truly shy individual will need to undergo major changes before she can take on the whole world -- literally or figuratively -- at the end of the story. Under most circumstances, main characters of a work are the ones who make things happen. Surely they will face many struggles; in fact, they had better face them! But in the end, the main character must have the characteristics in place to perform in the climatic scenes. The shyness needs to dissipate as the story progresses.
A reader must understand early on what the character's personality is like, and how it affects what she does. In Beginnings, Middles & Ends, author Nancy Kress says that a story grows out of what the characters do, and in turn, what the characters do grows out of what they want. The motivation behind the character's actions must be clear to the reader. Why does this situation matter to him or her? Why would she react to it in this particular way?
If the motivation is easily understood, because nearly anyone would react that way in a similar situation, less attention needs to be drawn to it. In the event that you need to supply a motivation that is counter to the reader's expectation, you will also need to supply more background to make the motivation plausible. If your character would laugh and cheer when the rest of the world would cry, we need to understand why.
This applies equally to your villain. If you don't know why he or she is causing all this trouble, take a long hard look at the situation. A story will be much stronger if you can show why he does the things he does, why he is the way he is.
Early on, your character must be shown as capable of changing. This can be done by a glimpse of how they have changed in the past: "John had felt that way himself just recently..." Or use a different device to show a mind that is open to change. The actual changes occur in direct response to the events you have planned for your main character to go through. The older your character is, the larger the problem he must face in order to make him change his points of view, unless you can establish a life-long pattern of adaptability.
Throughout the middle of the story, a series of experiences must be dramatized that might reasonably be expected to cause changes in the character's attitude. Is your character given opportunities to slowly gain confidence in herself, thus losing that shyness? In a novel-length work, prepare room for some slip-ups as well. Perhaps someone she was just coming to trust says something that causes her to retreat into her shell again, even slightly. The scene need not play a pivotal role in the overall plot to be worthy of inclusion. These minor adjustments can cause your reader to empathize more with your characters. And when readers care, they want to keep reading.
Sound complex? It is, but it isn't over yet! So far, we've only examined the main character interacting with the plot, with a slight tip of our hat to the villain. What about all the other characters? Equally important, what kinds of sparks will come up between the various personalities? How will Ellen react when she discovers that Jane has double-crossed her? Why will she react that way? Why does Jane do it in the first place?
It is not enough to say that Jane must do it in order for there to be a story. Each of the major players in your drama must have their own set of motivators, which must be evidenced as they collide.
Why do Evan and Bill hate each other? We know that at the end, they must be able to work together, albeit grudgingly. What little steps can their relationship take throughout the novel to make their cooperation understandable and inevitable?
For me, these questions were most easily answered midway through the plotting process. I had developed an idea, and figured out a bit about the types of personalities that would be required to dramatize this story. A basic plot line was coming together, structured according to Andi Ward's helpful class. Another round of character development followed, based on what I was uncovering about the plot.
It was time to compute the tiny steps required to make the characters' interactions believable. A little something here that softened Bill's attitude towards Evan. A hint there that Ellen's best friend, Jane, may not be quite what she seems. Linking these minute changes directly to the plot required further modifications to the plot itself, of course, but these changes were smaller.
If you are a writer who sketches out each scene of the entire novel before beginning to write, that outline is the place to make the notations of how the various attitudes and relationships need to change within each scene.
Some of you call yourselves organic writers. It's possible that, in general, you will find yourself with the most revisions to do once your first draft is complete. Some of these character arcs may be kept in mind as you write, but you will need to pay particular attention to their plausibility during revision.
Having tried the organic way, I am currently a crossbreed writer. My current novel notebook has pages of notes listing the high points that need to be covered within each story arc. These are not nearly as defined as scenes in an outline! Also sketched here are the character changes these circumstances will formulate.
By developing these characteristics in a conscious manner, a plausible new motivation will creep in to replace the old one. And just in time! Your MC needs this new attitude and incentive in order to pull off the daring stunts needed to compel the story through the climax and on to its natural conclusion.
Beginnings, Middles & Ends
By Nancy Kress