The Rotating Mirror

When I edit a novel written by a man, I frequently find that the protagonist works well as an instrument of action. The only problem is that the depth of his personality is in inverse proportion to the excitement he creates. To give him more personal stature—in order for the reader to truly identify with him—I usually look for a woman character he can socialize with. Not to say a buddy relationship can’t produce sterling results, but most of the time, guys interacting with guys produce about as many inner mysteries as you might expect.

The main reason for such a pairing is to show a different side of the hero. We know what he’s like when facing opposition, but how does he react when he’s off the clock? How is he nice to someone he’s attracted to? How does he react to a woman who is strict? How does he deal with his screw-up younger sister?

You’ll notice that right from the get-go, I’m suggesting different types of relationships—not solely the James Bond variety. If you could develop all three of the relationships I’ve just mentioned, you’d reveal three different sides to him. This is a major function of a supporting character: to provide a prism through which to view the protagonist. That in turn adds a different facet to his personality, giving him more texture.

Yet a character cannot function solely as a mirror. If she is to appear in an extended series of scenes, she has to be interesting in her own right. How can she hold the reader’s attention otherwise? This is a critical mistake that many authors make. They think of the character in terms of her utility to the hero. The author does not step outside his own limited prism: what is the hero going to do next?

Hopefully, you draw up preliminary sketches for all of your characters, but if you’re inclined to feel your way through, you'll have to stop, look, and listen. Just like a child, you’re on the brink of discovering the lay of the land. Only in this case, you’re immersed in the world of made-up personalities. If you think of a woman character that is as rich in qualities as the hero, that challenges him to put his skills on display to match up. He’s emerging from the vague cloud in your mind and coming to life on the page.

Exercise: What do preliminary notes on a character consist of? Sure, write down the basic personality traits, what parent did what to her in the past. But go beyond that. What is her goal in the book? What does she want out of the hero? Is he a means to an end for her—just as she is to him? When you think through the steps of her plan, her scenes will become more intricate and compelling.

“A man does what he can; a woman does what a man cannot.”
—Isabel Allende

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

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