The purpose of describing events in a novel is to show how your characters behave in normal situations. Without this, readers cannot interpret characters’ behavior in stressful situations. Round characters at some point of the plot trajectory act out of character, surprising readers in a convincing way.
Think of people you know fairly well. Has their behavior ever surprised you? It surprised me when my super-introverted husband attended his 30th high school reunion. When my friend’s honor roll daughter sprayed graffiti in the middle school gym. When the middle-aged, mousey woman next door set out on a transcontinental motorcycle trip. Real people can inspire you as you create fictional people.
Placing characters in situations provoking them to act out of character is “showing, not telling.” Readers deduce from a character’s atypical reactions that she is experiencing strong, conflicting emotions – strong enough to pull her from her personality’s magnetic north.
Once you know how your main characters habitually interact with the world around them, you’re ready to answer two vital questions:
1. What situation does the character typically avoid?
2. What outcome does the character desperately want (or want to prevent) that compels him to purposely step into that situation?
The answers to those two questions can drive your storyline and give you a climax to work toward.
Round characters possess emotional complexity. The sentence “Jasmine felt betrayed and yet oddly justified,” is informative. There is nothing wrong with that sentence. The sentence discloses Jasmine’s emotional state.
How can the author reveal more of Jasmine’s emotional weather pattern? How can the author dig deeper into the main character’s psyche without resorting to writing a string of dull, declarative sentences? The job at hand is to communicate the character’s inner self as well as the outer, public self.
The job of creating round characters is made easier with a set of tools. The tools or devices authors use to express a character’s memories and desires are the same tools flesh and blood humans use.
Here are a few tools that can help transform a flat character into a deeper, rounder one:
- Snippets of an image or sensation from a night-time dream compared to the character’s current mindset or emotion.
- A letter the character writes in high passion and then tears up. Or not.
- Ticket stub, report card, photo, sketch, certificate of achievement, eulogy or other ephemera the character finds accidentally or unearths on purpose, and reacts to.
- An email, text message, twitter or blog the character obsessively re-reads.
- Memories that float up that echo the character’s current predicament.
- A fantasy the main character harbors.
- Misinformation the character refuses to revise or correct. (“She didn’t bother telling the man she was Mrs. Nevin, not Miss Nevin.)
- Spoken words that contradict the character’s feelings. (“No, really. Everything’s fine.”)
- Weaknesses or flaws. Readers are more likely to empathize with a protagonist who has flaws like the rest of us
Give your character physical tags that indicate what’s occurring within the character. Remember Clement C. Moore’s Santa Claus who “Lay his finger aside his nose . . .”? That tag signaled that Santa would be whooshing up the chimney.
One of my characters rubs her stiff neck when she tells white lies. As her lies grow, her pain in the neck worsens. Another character tugs his earlobe when he feels emotionally cornered.
Including metaphors from nature can uncover a character’s struggles. A story about a farm girl wrestling with her conscience includes an unobtrusive, revealing clue with “. . . two sparrows tussled in the dust.” That image is more evocative than flatly stating that the girl was in conflict with herself.
Creating round characters with discernable traits and habits who then undergo believable change as a result of conflict requires planning and inventing. Round characters which are more dynamic, complex and unpredictable than stereotypical, flat ones are more interesting to read about. And to create.
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