Too Hungry to Fit

All of the elements involved in portraying a character’s change in life, from events to memories to descriptions, are telescoped into the small compass a novel can cover. The space limitations force an author to compress how a character goes about seeking resolution to the issues raised for her. The shoved-together nature of a novel’s passage often reminds me of the weirdly angular set designs of the famous silent movie Metropolis. That’s the world your lead characters should be inhabiting, not the serene lawns of suburbia.

The garish faces found in works of the German Expressionist movement serve as a useful example of the urgency a lead character must possess to drive a book forward. An urban scavenger hunting for prey, too much the outsider to fit within social conventions. To achieve that hunger, what are the issues to consider when you are outlining a character?

The first one is: is he ready for what lies ahead? As with an object at rest, you have to push a normal person much harder to set him in motion. If, as the book opens, the protagonist has already been stretched to his limits by forces around him, he is poised to launch. Yes, you do want to make the board he has to walk unsteady, but he has to feel the compulsion to reach the other end. Otherwise, why doesn’t he just pull back when the going gets tough?

The second is a voracious appetite for tearing into the plot’s events. Even when you consider a figure as sedate as Mrs. Marple, you also have to remember how willing she is to stick her nose in places she shouldn’t go. As a book’s pivotal moments arrive, how is your lead character going to act? How did she force the event to occur in the first place? If the event happens to her unexpectedly, how does she react in a way that has future consequences? An interesting character is constantly upsetting things in a way the sedate reader would really rather she didn’t.

The third looks inward, delineating the narrative voice. A person who has taken even temporary leave of his senses voices strange opinions to the reader, or follows a logic that carves out a perilous route. If the plot events are outsized, so too must be the judgments of one who has gone beyond the pale. Out there, where the buildings lean crazily, where strangers wear mawkish lipstick, the way the character is thinking will stray far afield of home sweet home.

Exercise: A character with a unique schtick is a staple of a genre like mystery. Yet that should be only the starting point for a character exploration. Ask yourself: what is wrong with my character that she acts the way she does? The wrongness is what captivates a reader’s attention. Enumerate to yourself the left feet she instinctively puts forward. That’s how she is going to stand out from the rest.

“If we really want to live, we’d better start at once to try.”
—W. H. Auden

Copyright @ 2015, John Paine

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Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.