Crossed Lines

In a world where megalithic corporations funnel us all toward becoming oafs who eat burgers, it is not surprising that we clamor for entertainment that presents a new take on things. Yet the insidious pull of sameness affects novels as well, with formulaic plots helmed by cynical mavericks who really, deep down, are good people. How does an author devise characters who could intrigue us?

You might want to start by thinking of the main characters you want to include and write them down in a list. Then, off the top of your head, name one stereotypical quality that would describe them. Once you have jotted down a list of those attributes, then play a kid’s game with yourself. Draw a line to connect the names not with the quality you assigned, but on a diagonal, at random, with another quality. So the librarian, for instance, does not win the “mousy and quiet” label but the “muscles hard as steel.” That would be unusual: a librarian who lifts weights.

The point of the exercise is not to create weirdos that no reader would believe in. Rather, it’s a way of shaking you out of your habitual ways of thinking about people. We all have our slants; they’re a variant of reaching for the burger, only intellectually. But what would happen if, in that library scene you were scheming about, the librarian was glancing down at a muscle mag behind the counter while helping a helpless patron? What if they started tripping out on a fantasy about a particularly statuesque body builder while answering questions about the gardening section? That scene is sparky, not the same old grind.

At the same time you can free-associate between the labels and different characters. The ardent gun lover who makes sure they always dress in vogue might be a bridge too far for you, but not for the student who marches for our lives. In the midst of mismatching, new traits may spring to mind that are fresh but align better with the core of what you want for the character. Maybe the librarian, rather than bulking up, gains the attribute of being worried about the nutrition of the food served in their local soup kitchen.  

Shaking up your preconceptions at the start will produce more unique characters than your discovering more of what they’re like as you work through the draft. That way is more prone to following your unconscious slant. A flatter character, despite all that you’ve added, may be the inevitable result.

Exercise: Examine your notes for a character and ask yourself if you have experienced that type before: in a book, movie, or television show. If you have, why are you going in that direction? Somebody else already did that. Instead, flip the attribute on its head and choose the exact opposite. How would the character look turned upside-down?

“Our mind is capable of passing beyond the dividing line we have drawn for it. Beyond the pairs of opposites of which the world consists, other, new insights begin.” —Hermann Hesse

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved. 

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.