7.25.2017

Inflamed Beyond Reason

Keeping a plot from being predictable is one of a novelist’s most important jobs. The more fiendish among the fraternity scheme to produce an unending series of twists. The more logical allocate clues on a revolving basis to suspects. Yet if plotting isn’t your strength, you can use character attributes to keep the reader off balance.

I’m not talking about an untrustworthy narrator, which is a complicated narrative task all on its own. I mean character flaws. If a character has one, you can use it in a progressive fashion, building it to unreasonable heights. A villain can harp on it, count on it to produce the aim he wishes.

If you need possible ideas, you can start with the seven deadly sins. The leader among them, pride, has plenty of useful variants. A common modern trait, for instance, is the inability to back down. With the imperatives of Christian morality overthrown on a widespread basis, everyone has a right to insist on her opinion. The mounting of hubris based on such stubbornness can produce an irrevocable line that cannot be recrossed, even early in the novel.

One of the most effective flaws, ever since the days of Othello, has been jealousy. In the modern era, when women are no longer confined to the hearth, the opportunities for this trait have grown. A woman often partners with a man on an office project, for example, or on company travel. A man can develop a bond with a female colleague so close that it rivals marriage. So a villain who drops an evil word into the ear of a spouse has plenty of means to taint what is aboveboard. That poisoned character can be enraged beyond the point of reason—entailing an unpredictable fallout.

No matter which flaw is chosen, it gives the author an opportunity to focus on a target. Rather than having to build a succession of plot events, he need only decide such issues as: what would tip off the behavior, what could a villain do to lead him astray step by step, when does the character realize the folly of his ways, etc. Perhaps this is not the most organic way to characterization, but really, doesn’t every author set out parameters for the roles she wants for her players? Why not make yours useful?

Exercise: A character flaw works best when it impacts other people. You can have plenty of internal wrangling, but a reader gasps only when the flaw is displayed in public. So in addition to devising how the flaw will affect the character, consider which other key characters the flaw is going to impact most. You may find, even with two of them, that sketches for a dozen scenes pop immediately to mind.

“Conceal a flaw, and the world will imagine the worst.”
—Martial

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

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