Many thanks to the many who sent in questions! My list is stocked full of thorny topics for months to come. And, of course, more thorns are always welcome.
On September 20, 2019, Katie W. wrote, I’m having a lot of trouble with one of my MC’s. In one of the character development posts, I don’t remember which, there’s a bit that describes him perfectly. “He develops strategies to distract from himself, becomes charming, a great talker, a reliable friend, but he never feels truly seen–because he doesn’t let anyone truly see him. Our plot needs to get him out of his isolation.”Problem is, I have no idea how to pull it off. How does he turn from a social chameleon to someone willing to stand up for an unpopular opinion? I have him doing it, but the transition seems too sudden, because he’s doing it for the sake of the plot and because I want him to, not because it fits with who he is. Although I have very little idea of who he is, as well, which might be part of the problem. Any suggestions?
Melissa Mead asked, Is there someone he cares about enough to want to earn their respect?
Katie W. answered, Not nearby. I really don’t like writing romance, so he doesn’t have a love interest, and until about two thirds of the way through the story, his family members are all at least a hundred miles away. He can talk with them, but they’re not physically there, plus he’s 27, so I don’t think he’d be in super close contact with them, anyway.
I’m noticing two threads in Katie W.’s question: How do we make our characters follow our plots? And how do we reveal the inner lives of our characters so that the reader (and the writer) understands why they do what they do?
I may not say often enough that the ideas I share here come out of experience and mistakes. The first thread make me think of my only novel in a drawer–deep in the recesses of my laptop, a book so problematic that I hate even to think about it, in which I made my character behave in a way that made even me loathe her.
It probably would fall into the young end of YA today. The title was My Future Biography, which, as you’ll see, says it all. I’ve buried the book so far in my subconscious that I don’t remember my MC’s name, so let’s call her X. X is a fifteen-year-old aspiring actor who believes she has more talent than anyone else in the universe. She lands a spot, through no accomplishment of her own, as an extra in a summer stock theater. (An extra, for people who don’t know, is on the lowest rung of the theatrical world–goes for coffee, paints sets, puts props away–whatever’s needed.) The first play of the season is Inge’s Playboy of the Western World.
As early as the first rehearsal, X begins to criticize the leading lady to anyone who will listen (no one). She also offers suggestions to said leading lady, truly meaning to be helpful.
My plot idea was that X would be taken down a peg or ten and wind up a humbler person. On the way there, frustrated that none of her ideas are taken seriously, she writes an anonymous bad review of the production for the local paper, which hurts the theater and the whole cast. This inconsiderate act makes her entirely unlikable. When the leading lady is injured, X gives a dreadful performance as her understudy, which even she recognizes. She finally gets her comeuppance, but it’s too late to save the book. (This is sad, because I still love the secondary characters I came up with. Also, at X’s age I was an extra in summer stock and I wanted to put some of the fun I had in a book. I was already humble–the theater did only musicals, and I’m not much of a singer.)
I think the problem here is my plot. The strategy for all of us would be to examine our plot as early as possible and think about what it will require of our MC. Can a consistent person do this? We usually want character growth, but it’s hard to make a character change completely and still be believable. I can’t imagine how I could have crafted a likable character who would do what I made X do, because if she was likable, she wouldn’t have written that review, but if she didn’t write the review, her comedown wouldn’t work.
What might I have done to the plot? Well, I might have introduced a villain, who, because he has it in for the leading lady or for some other nefarious reason, encourages X’s opinions and behavior, which are tentative at the beginning. It’s his influence that leads her to behave badly. She realizes her limitations as an actor at the same time she discovers that she’s been a pawn. Whew! thinks the reader. Now I can like her again. (But without trying it, I don’t know if that would fix the story, either.)
If we’re outliners, we can work this out as we’re planning our plot. If we’re pantsers, as I am (mostly), we should be considering character consistency as we write and adjusting as we go along.
If our plot is okay, then we think, again as early as possible, about what sort of character can carry it. The example I always use from my own work is my Princess Tale, The Princess Test, which is based on the fairy tale “The Princess and the Pea.” Who would have a terrible night’s sleep in the most luxurious bed in all of fairy tale land?
Let’s also consider Hamlet. What sort of character would be as indecisive as Hamlet is? Just saying, many characters, confronted by a ghost whose reality can’t be doubted, would decide in pretty short order whether or not vengeance is called for or what else should be done. Laertes would. But Hamlet waffles. Shakespeare figured out who would do that and what the result would be. That’s the character he wrote.
Onto how we reveal our characters, because if we know them, we can engineer their change, as in Katie W’s case from a chameleon to someone with permanent stripes or spots. We have available what our MC thinks, feels, and does. Plus the other stuff we can invent about him: what his hobbies are; where he lives (whether his home is furnished early-American style or modern, whether its neat or messy, like that); what his friends are like and how he behaves with them.
At first, we just have to make up stuff out nothing. All we have to go on is our plot idea and the kind of person who will conform to it.
Let’s suppose that our MC Charles works for a tech company, and the CEO, Jason, operates like a dictator. Jason has favorites who advance whether or not they’re competent. He also thinks ill of some of his employees. He doesn’t hold back from ridiculing them, and their stars do not rise. Flattery is the bitcoin of this realm.
Charles, as we write him in the beginning, is adept at the game, maybe more than anyone else. He flatters without fawning, and everyone likes him. His skillfulness wins him the job of director of HR (human resources), but in that position he has to enforce and even create policies that are in line with Jason’s practices. For example, he reassigns the talented technical writer Sarah, who has been a tad too outspoken, to an offsite location two hours from her home because Jason has said he can’t stand the sight of her.
How do we change him, grow him a spine?
Well, since we don’t know him well yet, what can we make up about him? We can make a list!
∙ He likes his salary and being able to buy whatever he wants, within reason.
∙ He doesn’t take his job very seriously, except for wanting to keep it.
∙ His main interest in life is stamp collecting.
∙ He has a stutter, which he controls very well, but when he becomes emotional it comes back.
∙ His apartment is full of houseplants, which he talks to. When he goes to work, he puts on music for them.
As an early prompt, add five more bullets to my list.
What can we pick to start him toward standing up to Jason? We can add some notes to our list.
∙ He likes his salary and being able to buy whatever he wants, within reason. As head of HR he sets up the pay scale for all the employees, which makes him uncomfortable.
∙ He doesn’t take his job very seriously, except for wanting to keep it. An employee who has been reassigned to a very unpleasant boss breaks down in his office, or, say, threatens him. He’s shaken.
∙ His main interest in life is stamp collecting. Someone he’s buying a stamp from emails him, and they start a correspondence.
∙ He has a stutter, which he controls very well, but when he becomes emotional it comes back. His stuttering starts to be a problem at unexpected times, once in front of Jason, who isn’t nice about it.
∙ His apartment is full of houseplants, which he talks to. When he goes to work, he puts on music for them. One of his plants starts drooping. He takes it to a plant nursery, where one of the workers treats him the way he treats people at work, in a false friendly way.
Not all of these will be useful, but one or two may be. The point is to create an imperative for him to change, which he will do through thoughts, feelings, dialogue, and actions.
Here are three more prompts:
∙ Using my list or your own, bring about Charles’s change. Write the scene in which he stands up to Jason. If you like, keep going. Charles will retaliate!
∙ Make Jason your MC and bring about change in him.
∙ Rewrite Hamlet. Your Hamlet can decide that his dad, the dead king, was a despot, a terrible husband and father, and the kingdom is better off without him, even though murder is an extreme way to achieve regime change. Or he can elope with Ophelia and head for Mantua. Or he can hire an assassin and ascend to the throne. Or something else that you decide. Write the story. If you’re ambitious, write it as a play in blank verse.
Have fun, and save what you write!