Defined by Consumption

When authors ask me what they can do to make a protagonist more well rounded, their intention is largely focused on the track that is already laid. If Ben is a bruiser who is nice only to cats, the author wants to know what else can develop his charisma. Their sights are trained just a notch higher than abs and deltoids; maybe I should explain how he picks up cats?

You may want to let your thinking run in a different direction. Many authors don’t like to waste time, but I often advocate exercises that do precisely that. If you want a better-rounded character, you have to pull them out of the plot. That’s because the plot wants to define the character. You know what has to happen, so the character is bent toward that aim.

The fixation on time is risible, anyway, because we all know how much time we waste when writing. A dozen trips to reheat a cup of coffee is hardly a mark of efficiency, among the other excuses not to keep the butt planted in the chair. So why not explore what the hero would do in ordinary life?

Not too ordinary, of course. You always want tension among your characters, even in a sketch. How about a high-stakes purchase, like buying a new couch? You know that’s going to run upward of a thousand dollars. That sort of money makes partners tense and irritable. As a bonus, you get to throw an oily salesperson in the mix.

Okay, we know Ben can hurl couches to the other end of the showroom, but what colors does he like? Does he like claw feet and lots of metal studs—the old-fashioned look—or is he into modern? Does he like sectionals? Would he argue for a sofa bed?

Beyond taste, place him with a significant other. What does Ben do when they suggest an alternative? If the partner really presses the point sharply? How does he act if the salesperson is standing right next to them? Is Ben a far-sighted kind of guy—knowing that how he acts will have consequences that will last as long as the couch remains in the house—or is he impulsive? And what is his attitude when the salesperson adds helpful hints?

Best of all, you as the author can identify with such a purchase. You know how you felt, so you can plug that into the character. Your being able to identify gives the character the greatest complexity of all.

Exercise: A sketch is only as useful as you make it. As you are writing it, think of what the protagonist has done inside the book already. When you are finished, review the manuscript with the ideas of applying the takeaways that emerged from the sketch. That way all but the couch enters the book.

“The complexity of things—the things within things—just seems to be endless. I mean nothing is easy, nothing is simple.”
— Alice Munro

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine

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