Monthly Archives: March 2012

Characters Drive Plot

Emotion drives behavior, behavior drives story. ~Nancy Kress

What’s happening in a story is most often happening to a character. Characters and plot intersect in several ways:

A character can create a plot point through action—the character does something and the story is a step closer to completion. (This applies to creative non-fiction too.)

A character can be acted upon by others, by nature, by God, and can create another plot point by reacting.

A character can remember things. Flashbacks are character-rich plotting devices that can give the reader information from the character’s backstory. Flashbacks don’t need to be told in chronological order.

Plot points can also be created by the imagining of the character. This could be a dream, a fantasy, a daydream, or a projection. An excellent example of this device can be seen in Flannery O’Conner’s Everything that Rises Must Converge. Notice how the son’s wild imaginings affect the plot.

Using your own list of characters, write or rewrite a story from the POV of a minor character. How does the plot change?

More reading: Junot Diaz The Sun The Moon The Stars
Tobias Wolff The Rich Brother
Julia Alvarez The Rudy Elmhurst Story

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Some Ways to Reveal a Character

I’m using the word “reveal” because a compelling character emerges from a combination of narration, dramatization and action in scenes—show AND tell. James Frey says a character has 3 dimensions: physiological, sociological and psychological. Do your homework and create full lives for your characters (backstory.) A compelling character is a complex character.

Describing what a character looks like, what his or her environment is like, and what kinds of possessions the character owns is the most basic way to define a character and is usually done through narration. Choose physical details that underscore her personality traits. Choose those character traits that have a bearing on the character’s emotion and behavior in the story.

What a character says in dialog is powerful characterization. How she says it is critical to knowing the character: her vocabulary, syntax, diction, use and misuse of words, even gestures, tone, and how emotionally charged the speech is. Just as important is what the character doesn’t say or avoids (subtext) to define her character.

Characters can’t only talk, they must act. A character’s behavior, both with other characters and alone, shows the reader a great deal. What the character does is tied in with who he is.

Characters reveal themselves directly or indirectly on the page, depending on the point of view, through their thoughts. It is particularly effective for characterization when the character thinks differently than he or she acts or speaks. An example of character revealed through thoughts can be seen in Bharati Mukherjee’s The Tenant. Notice how the association of her thoughts follow each other, and notice how much we learn about her through this association.

Go back to those lists you made of important people in your life, the creepy ones too, and pick a number. See that person in your mind’s eye. What’s she like? Zoom-in. Write about her skin, and the way her hair straggles unevenly around her ears, a combination of mousy brown and silver. Notice how she moves, how she flutters her hands when she feels nervous or perplexed. Smell her breath. Has she tippled the tequila today? Is she still wearing that Indian print bedspread she sewed into a granny skirt in 1968 and huaraches? What does her natural expression say about her? Look at what she’s doing. Is it routine, sweeping the floors, or something she loves. She plays the piano, doesn’t she? Where is she? On that slumping screened back porch she loves so much, or in the formal living room. Write about this person until you own her. Carolyn See says, “And from now on, it’s a combination of what he does and what you want him to do that’s going to make this character come alive.”

If you’re having trouble visualizing your character, interview her.

Adapted from: Alice LaPlant, The Making of a Story, A Norton Guide to Creative Writing 2007, Carolyn See, Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers 2002, and James N. Frey, How to Write a Damn Good Novel, St. 1987

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Surprise Your Reader

Characters are the stars that everything else in your story orbits around: the plot, the dialog, the details, the themes. Even “show don’t tell” is all about character. Characters are central to what we writers do every time we apply pressure to those keyboard keys! And our goal is to create real people (in memoir too) who live on the pages, act in ways the reader believes and whom the reader can care about.

But there’s something else. A character must convince us that he or she is real, and he or she must surprise us. We aren’t going to care about flat, predicable characters.

Flat vs. Round Characters (Thanks to E. M Forster!)
When we read, we focus in on characters, whether or not we realize it, and we see them as human beings with all the features, attributes, foibles and peccadilloes of a real person: black curly hair, size six shoes, a limp, a history, memories, an aversion to clowns, hair trigger tempers, hopes, dreams—although we may not read about all of these things, a (main) character has ‘em and the reader can feel the character breathing on the page. If she doesn’t, the character is flat, lifeless, and not believable.

Not to say a flat character isn’t allowed. We want a few flat characters in our work. These are stereotypes. They act in a consistent and prescribed manner. They lack complexity. They serve cocktails in the Beastly Bar. They rat to the teacher, putting our protagonist into hot water. They might be a loving mother or an evil boss, but they don’t surprise us and we, as readers, don’t care about them.

The round character is the opposite. He surprises us with his passion for reptiles, or his kindness toward foreigners, or his caustic eye on the world. The round character might be our friend. Something to keep in mind, the round character doesn’t need to be likeable, just compelling! E.M. Forster says, “if a character never surprises us, then he or she is flat; if they surprise but do not convince us, they are only flat pretending to be round.”
(Gurov in Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Little Dog” is a round character.)

Some tips for creating compelling characters:
~Be specific, particular and precise when writing character. Real people don’t act in general ways. Your flat character may cry at a wedding along with half the guests, but your round character is going to surprise us.
~A round character will not act consistently, nor will she act crazy, all the time.

Strive for complexity. Humans are multifaceted, unpredictable, and infinitely interesting!

Carolyn See in Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers
says, “Until the rest of us have time to sit down for cucumber sandwiches [like E. M. Forster–Ed.,] there are other ways to look at the characters who are going to be important in our lives and our work.” Here’s how:

Make a list of the ten most important people in your life. “Without thinking about it, or trying to make a good impression on anyone, or a bad impression either. Whom do you love? Who betrayed you? Whom did you betray? Who drives you nuts? Who’s out of your reach? Who’s your role model? Who’s your benchmark for insanity?” Write the list. Now, quickly, write the list of the “other” important people you knew and why—the ones who creep you out.

These are your characters. Carolyn says, “…the ones you know something about. You may even have said to them, in a quarrel, ‘I know you better than you know yourself!’…But they give you—in a form of cosmic refraction—unique access to your own soul and vision of life.”

Save your lists. You’ve got work to do!

Adapted from: Alice LaPlant, The Making of a Story, A Norton Guide to Creative Writing 2007 and Nancy Kress, Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint, Writers Digest Books, 2005 and Carolyn See, Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers 2002

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