Past the Obvious

Any author who receives a rejection letter that says “I couldn’t connect with the characters” feels the bewilderment of what they’re supposed to do. While that stock response can refer to the lack of depth in the narrative voice, what about a novel that is filled with action? This type of book usually is written in the third person, and multiple points of view are used. So you’re not going to achieve that much depth with any one of them anyway. You can, however, make your characters more distinctive. 

When I suggest specific places where an author could better fill out a character from the inside, what I often find in response is a surface-level reaction. When, for instance, a detective reacts to the sudden appearance of a figure on a dark city street, the author's reaction might be: “He knew he had to steel himself for the worst.” While that might be fine, it is also typical. You can almost hear the trumpets blare before the two jousting knights charge toward each other. What was the agent’s/editor’s comment? Not connecting. Maybe it’s because of typical reactions like that. Right, what any male would think. Click to open a rejection notice.

To extend this example, you should try to go deeper than the noble guy.  Stop and shut your eyes, not looking at the character out there on the screen. Take a minute and sort out what you would feel. Write three separate options: one noble but one the opposite of noble, and then one that is a tangent of the opposite of noble. If the opposite is “He felt an urge to stain his pants,” then jump from there. One thought might be: “He was really offended . . .” 

Then choose one and keep writing for maybe another quarter page. How is that working out? Does it feel like a TV rerun? Then select another and write out a quarter page. If you feel you need to explore the third option, write out a quarter-page skein for that. 

As you’re writing each one, keep thinking about alternatives. What did the character do earlier in the novel? Say, he found he actually understood the problem his daughter had in her math homework. He is the same guy in both situations. Could the homework helper influence the thoughts of the tough detective? In other words, the way to be different is to reach for another gear, one that is unexpected but also makes sense, because we liked him when he was helping her with the homework. You may find, by the time you have finished the third alternative, that you have another idea altogether: one that’s truly unique. What you’re doing is bringing all parts of your character to bear on that moment. That’s depth.

“My literature is much more the result of a paradox than that of an implacable logic, typical of police novels. The paradox is the tension that exists in my soul.”  —Paulo Coelho

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.