Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
September 2013

Advanced Character Development

I wrote up a series of questions recently that I think are key for a character in the kind of book you just cannot put down because you have to find out what happens to that character because you have started to feel like that character is part of your life, part of your heart, and you can't let go. Do you know the kind of character I mean? There are plenty of great plot-driven stories where I want to find out the ending because the author is superb at dropping little clues about an opening mystery that I want to find out the answer to, or thrillers where enough is at stake and the world building is good enough that I can't let go. But if you can do those and add in superb character development, I believe you will have a book that will keep selling decade after decade.

Here are the questions :

1. What does s/he want or need?

2. What is his/her deepest secret/shame?

3. What is his/her great wound?

4. What is his/her greatest flaw/weakness?

5. What is his/her dream of the future that s/he will not admit even to his/herself?

6. How will s/he be humbled?

7. What must s/he sacrifice?

A lot of writers spend far too much time figuring out trivial things about their main character, writing up character profiles that seem a bit like what you would send into an on-line dating service. Here is the problem with that kind of a survey: it's superficial. When you are thinking about details you want to establish about the character that are to be revealed from the beginning, you are thinking about a lot of superficial things. Eye color, hair color, height, weight. Irrelevant. Sure, you may need to mention them once or twice, but these are not about the deep truths about character.

Furthermore, the deep truths about characters are often things that they do not know about themselves (but you as the author must) and/or are things that they would never ever reveal to anyone else in an interview situation. They are not the kinds of things that you as an author are going to write about in the first few pages of a manuscript. They are things that are likely not going to be revealed until some important moment at the climax of the novel, or may never be revealed in full because they don't need to be. What drives a character does not necessarily need to be shown so long as you see the character being driven.

Back to the questions above. Figuring out what a character wants or needs is sometimes something that can be revealed early on. In fact, as a teacher, I often find myself recommending to students that they use the first chapter in a book as a "hook" to make the reader care deeply about the character. Showing a character who wants something desperately or who needs something (and doesn't have it) can be extremely effective. But there are other ways of stirring up reader interest. Showing a character do something amazing, either in terms of talent or in terms of goodness, works. Showing a character in pain can also work. But even if you don't show a character's want or need in the first chapter, you must know what it is. It is that want or need which ultimately drives the entire novel. It propels the character forward and therefore propels the reader to follow after the character.

But a character who wants something desperately is only the beginning of truly great character development. A character may want to go to a concert desperately. Or to get a great new chocolate milk shake. Or a kiss from her boyfriend. A want like this can only take you so far. It is the deeper character underneath this want that makes a story truly unshakable out of the reader's mind. What is this character's deepest secret or shame? A character who has a secret that may seem trivial to anyone else, but guards it like it is a treasure, is an interesting character. A character who has a shame that is truly horrific can be driven to spend the rest of his life making amends. At first, it can be effective not to tell the reader what this secret horror is, but only have the character shy away from talking about it. And when it is revealed, what happens? Is the reader surprised? Disgusted? Or does the reader discover that the character is even more heroic and lovable than before? If you have ever met someone who was ashamed of hurting another person in the smallest way, you know what I mean. There are people whose great secrets are really badges of courage. And those who are not, who are truly monsters. Sometimes heroes can have monstrous pasts, or it might be that your hero turns into a villain.

A shame is not the same as a great wound. A shame is self-inflicted. A wound is inflicted by someone else. Knowing your character's horoscope is not nearly so important as knowing what is the wound that is an Achilles heel. What is the vulnerability that is either open or hidden in this character? Does everyone know about it and if they do, why? If no one knows about it, how do you show the reader that it happened, even so? Is this a character who pretends that the wound never happened? Is this a character who sees the same wound in others? Who tries to protect everyone else from being wounded in the same way? How does this wound affect how the character deals with the villain or with a potential romantic partner?

A flaw or weakness is so important to establish a great character. Again, this is different from a shame and a wound. A flaw or a weakness is often something that a character does not see as a flaw or a weakness. Often, it is the result of a long reaction to a wound or secret. It has been the way that this character has learned to survive in a terrible world. But at some point, the character has to grow and develop past this weakness. I think the most amazing way to deal with this as an author is to make your reader fall in love with this character so that the flaw or weakness seems to the reader a vital part of the character, something that cannot possibly be gotten rid of, and then you realize that the character cannot have the future she wants unless she can change. And then we get to see if the character can change and transform into another, better version of herself. It is my opinion that readers do not ultimately read novels for the sake of great magical system or intricate worldbuilding. They read novels because they want to be transformed, and in order for that to happen, the characters also have to be transformed. This cannot work unless you begin with a flawed character, but one who is also likeable.

A dream of the future is not always something that a character knows is driving him. But it can work that way. Beware as a writer of dreams for the future that are not true dreams. A character can imagine a future where she has a good job, or where he has the best car, or where she has achieved the acclaim of others. But there is often a dream beyond the dream. Acclaim is usually a stand-in for another kind of reward, perhaps a mother's approval even after the mother has abandoned the child. The hope for a good job can be hiding the even greater dream for safety and security. A car can be the symbol for abundance. If you understand this as a writer, you can have a character think that they want one thing, and then when life intervenes (as it always does), you can show the character realizing that the original dream wasn't the true dream, that the true dream can be accomplished in several other ways, even after the world and the character have been completely transformed.

Every character must be humbled. Sometimes writers make the mistake of believing that the darkest moment in the novel is when a character has failed and failed again. The try/fail cycle is certainly important to the plot and character development that will lead to the climax. But before any success is achieved, a character must be humbled utterly. This isn't done merely by an outward failure. It is done by a character internalizing the failures and being obliterated by them. A character who is not undone emotionally, spiritually, socially, and in every other way by the dark moment of the book is not a character whose ultimate triumph will mean as much. So, make your character lie in the dirt and not want to get up. Make your character shout at others and be mean. Make your character hate himself -- and for good reasons, not stupid ones that are easily fixed.

Finally, you as an author need to write in a grand sacrifice for your character to give at the climax of the book. This cannot be only a physical sacrifice. It must be a sacrifice that cannot be returned to the character, either. Not to dis Disney, but too many Disney fairy tale movies make it so that everything bad that has happened disappears at the end, and there is only goodness after that. A real sacrifice has to hurt, and it has to last. I especially like it when the character has no real hope of survival and does what has to be done anyway a la Bruce Willis. But better than that still is when a character believes that doing what must be done will bring a fate worse than death, damnation of the soul or the loss of the only things that have ever mattered in life to her. And then goes ahead and does the right thing. As an author, you have to work hard to make an ending work after a sacrifice like this, because you can't be too cheesy and you can't make it too dark. But you need to build the sacrifice in from the very beginning. The one thing that the character thinks she could never give up is the thing that she must give up in the end.

The best science fiction and fantasy novels for me are the ones that contain a spiritual truth about life, and I believe at this point in my own personal development that there is no power without a price, which is why magic must always cost something. I love stories in which there is a clear goal to begin with and then life happens and it all goes to shit and then the character finds out what is really true and who he really is. Because to me, that is what life has really been about. And when I see others struggling with the accidental life that they didn't plan, I see who they really are. I see who characters are, as well, when they don't get what they want, even if what they wanted was good and just and true, when they pay prices they shouldn't have to pay, when they sacrifice what they think is the best part of themselves, and when they become someone they are not entirely sure they like anymore.

Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison

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