Authors tend to think of a character trait as a set element in a personality rather than a force that helps to propel a novel. Yet a story usually demands that a character trait remains ongoing, leading toward an end later in the novel. A young woman, for example, is so wildly rebellious that she breaks something important to her in the climax. Her character arc demands development toward that point.

While a very good author might be able to convey that progress through interior thoughts, the lesser lights among us might want to employ their other characters to assist in that aim. In particular, a pattern that is seen frequently in novels is using two supporting characters: one a comrade and one an opponent. I propose this in the crudest terms, since many shades of both types have been chosen. In addition, a protagonist may have several of both, as long as they are maintained on a continual basis throughout the story.

Why so few? The simple answer is dispersion. You can build a stronger bond with one lover or one friend. You can focus hatred better on one opponent. That principle can be expanded outward to a limited extent. The rebel above—call her Lindsey—might have two friends who are very much unalike, but both play signal roles in daring Lindsey to wilder efforts. Lindsey might not only hate her mother but her father too. 

Past that, though, what do you get? If Lindsey has three or four friends in her gang, now you have to apportion enough space for each of them to matter to the reader. The same holds for the opposition. Sure, the principal sucks too, not to mention the creepy English teacher, but how well does Lindsey know either of them compared to the ’rents? 

Character interactions can build in an ongoing way throughout a novel. This continual accretion allows you to show how a character trait plays out in how many different directions, including those unexpected, as you want. For Lindsey, rebellion may score telling points about the rotten hypocrisy of those in education, while at the same time her hectoring scares away any potential romantic partner. In order to accomplish the latter aim, you insert a character or two who are attracted to her vibrancy. How does that create friction with Lindsey and her friend(s)? How does she react to her parents’ support of the swain, even if she admits in her private moments that they are well meaning?

In every instance, tension is created by interactions with known quantities. The more the reader gets to know them, the more you can offer different types of scenarios to add complexity to the trait. Now Lindsey is ripe for a turning point.

Exercise: If you have written background stories for a character, examine them with an eye toward making them active. Does Lindsey, for instance, have to be a little girl when such-and-such happened? You may find that a chauvinist uncle is far more useful when her mother starts scolding him for being a pig.

“I have sporadic OCD cleaning moments around the house. But then I get lazy and I'm cured. It's a very inconsistent personality trait.” —Chris Hemsworth

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.