Applied Penetration

During a first draft an author is still trying to find out who the characters are. Forces in your subconscious move you in sometimes inexplicable directions. You may find yourself writing really well about a character you didn’t think at first would be that important. Or, you lose interest in a character that initially shone in your mind.

When you go about revising the manuscript, you do continue to respond to such unbidden ebbs and flows, but the process can be more deliberate. You can decide at the outset that you want Character A to have X as a signal element of his personality. Let’s say you want X to be: passive-aggressive. The character spends the entire book trying to please people, but at the same time he stores up all this resentment that people take advantage of him.

That’s a nice concept. Sure, passive-aggressive would work. But how, exactly, do you go about doing such a thing? 

Start by thinking about a person you know who is always trying to please people. What does she do? She might, while at your house, see an unmailed letter and offer to take it to the post office for you. She might offer, even though you interrupt her in the process of stamping prices, offer to take you to the exact item in the drugstore. In short, she embarrasses you by going the extra mile you never asked her to take. So write down a list of such generous acts. Better yet, keep in mind Character A as you’re writing, and tailor the list for that character.

Then review all of the scenes in which he appears. Is he constantly trying to please people? Does he offer to give the heroine a ride home even though she knows it’s out of his way? You are viewing each one of his actions through a specific prism—passive-aggressive. And guess what? The reader is going to think that he tries too hard to please people—because that’s what he keeps doing.

Now flip the coin: the aggressive side. How do you show that? Again, think about human nature. Such a person tends to grumble to Character B about how Character C is taking advantage of him. As the book goes on, the grumbling can become increasingly explosive. He lashes out, maybe two-thirds of the way through, at another character for always taking, taking, taking—I’m sick of it! Now the reader is disturbed. The development to the explosion feels natural, but you’ve been stage-managing every single scene to reach that result.

Exercise: When you’re drawing up the list, remember the cardinal rule: entertain the reader. Think of different ways to show a trait, but discard the pedestrian ways. The wilder the gesture (within bounds of plausibility), the more you increase the embarrassment factor. You want the reader to cringe, a little or a lot.

“They consider me to have sharp and penetrating vision because I see them through the mesh of a sieve.” —Khalil Gibran

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.