Stripped Down, Bare Chested

How many times have you read what Character B says about the protagonist and thought, “I didn’t realize that.” You’re accepting her opinion as the truth. In a nutshell, that shows you how powerful connections are. When you use your characters in a way that shines light on others, the reader is the beneficiary. You’ve let us in: we are in the know.

If Malcolm is sullen, for instance, who in the book knows why? Who has been exasperated by it, and what consequences has Malcolm suffered because of it? Already you realize: a parent was likely the starting point—that’s one connection. How has that played out in his romantic involvements—that’s possibly several connections, each different. Regarded by itself, sullen is an unapproachable island. Regarded in terms of connections, Malcolm is being pulled in all sorts of directions—and he may well wish he was less sullen. That is complex, interesting.

An equally important function of connections is creating relationships with staying power during the course of the book. Too often I ask an author to address sullenness, and he responds with a quarter-page back story about an abusive mother. I can almost see the author as he finishes: with a smile, smacking his hands—job done. 

Yet a connection means that the abusive mother would participate in the novel: calling the hero about some persistent issue, getting in his way when he has important stuff to do, disrupting his sullen contemplation, and best of all, forcing the author to reveal how the hero relates to his mother. 

Now we’re getting somewhere. How do you talk to your mother? What secrets does she know that reveal how you tick? What are the most salient memories you have of her? For what did she praise you? About what did she complain bitterly, unceasingly, about you, or maybe your father (and thus you by association, you male lout). 

That connection does not have to be a mother, of course. But you see what I mean. When you are forced to make the hero interact with others, on an ongoing basis, he’s going to reveal scars and warts that make him stand out.

Exercise: Sit back in your chair, close your eyes, and think of the three most important traits your protagonist possesses. Write them down, leaving space below each to fill out. Do you have a supporting character who can help reveal that trait? Could you find 7-10 places during the course of the novel where that trait could be displayed, commented upon by the other character, etc.? 


Practical Character Sketches

If the character who dominates your novel is a cardboard cutout, you are forced to resort to action on every page. Your readers won’t form much emotional connection to him—because the mind we are inhabiting is one-dimensional and we are not. What you end up with is a gang of vigorous children with adult attitudes.

After a first review of a manuscript, I will ask an author with this problem to stop any further writing on the story. Instead I request a 5-10 page character sketch that focuses not on what he does, but who interacts with him. That is the heart of the matter: the connections between characters. 

No person is an island, even though an inexperienced author may write as though this is the case. She has issues with her father, whether he is around or not. You need to think through the different stages of how her feelings toward him evolved. You should be able to capture at least 2-3 significant events that define her growing-up with him. The same goes for her mother.

If the character is a guy, sketch out his partner. What is she (or he) like, and why did he fall in with someone like that? What are the three things she does that really annoy him? Does he have a group of male friends, or does he spend most of his time just with her? What are the 2-3 most significant events in this relationship? I’ll point out, in this instance, that these don’t have to be background stories. They might be placed within the present-day story line. Then they would add to the novel’s mounting tension.

How about a particular sibling? Did she have a profound effect on the heroine as a child? Whether someone is the oldest or second-oldest child can have a profound impact on how she tried to get the attention of her parents—and how she still acts today. Again, try to sketch out 2-3 major events between them. 

What’s happening throughout this process is that you’re touching off sparks from your own past. Angry words that were flung at you by your mother 20 years ago may still smolder in your mind today. An observation by your best friend as to what you’re really like may be a beacon that guides your actions today—even if you haven’t seen him in 10 years. This is how we really act: as social creatures. So, don’t you want to define your characters that way? 

Exercise: Don’t forget to write down striking encounters with strangers. Sometimes in a conversation with someone we have never met, we make profound observations about where we are in our lives or where others are. You didn’t know you were that smart until you confessed to someone you will never meet again.


Find a Friend

The distance between a page of research and a page in your novel can be bridged when you approach the material the right way. That is: from the inside out. If you have two characters that are acting like the statues in their distant town squares, that’s because you haven’t thought through the implications of the information you’re using. 

Let’s say your protagonist visits Nathan Hale the night before he is to be hung, giving the only life he had. You have found out from your research that the two characters went to college together. Yet the story reads like those two inhabit separate planets. Nathan Hale lives in that history book you read, and your protagonist, well, he’s still fuzzy and goggle-eyed, emerging from the shell after you’ve given him life.

During the American Revolution, most people attended college between the ages of 15 and 18. Today’s high school ages, in other words. Nathan Hale was famous for not being able to keep his trap shut. So if your protagonist knew him, you can practice transference. Did you know a guy in high school like that? Could he have been one of your gang in high school? (Note: “she” works just as well.) What stories do you remember about high school that involved that tongue-flapping friend? Write down that story. Could it be retold back in the era when the only pollution we had to worry about was horse dung? Sure, it can. Social progress of the human species, in the sphere where characters live, moves as slow as (sorry) molasses. 

That process of transference works with all sorts of relationships, including your most important ones of all. In this case, you don’t have to worry about being constrained by the real-life models for your characters. Your brother didn’t live 200 years ago. Your mother doesn’t wear one of those fetching bonnets of yore. You’re mining your memory to infuse life in a fictional relationship that exists only as dry bones of research. That’s why you’re having so much trouble making them real friends.

Exercise: Find a character with whom you are dissatisfied. Think to yourself: what role is she playing in the book? What characteristics do you want her to possess? Now start thinking of people you know. Who is the character like? Once you’ve located the model, try to imagine how you (because you’re always the protagonist) relate to that model. What stories do you share? Pretty soon you’ll have a foundation of facts and impressions. Go on and fill ‘er up.


Your Nearest and Dearest

The baring of self causes many authors to shrink back from developing their protagonist fully. That instinctive need to guard against exposure also extends to our nearest and dearest. An author may have a character that is based on his older brother, and yet he dares not set forth identifying details for fear that his sibling will later read the book and condemn him. This fear is not misplaced. I remember more than one discussion with my older brother when he firmly, like a politician, averred that our parents weren’t so damaging to us. I got the hint.

Does that mean you have to wait until your parents are dead and your siblings are so addled they won’t care? I’d like to suggest a way out for the more true-blood members of the writing tribe. What is initially set out as background about a character does not mean that everything the relative did in the past is then recorded in the character’s arc. The character will be carried along in the novel to a place that your sister, for example, would never go. The events of a novel are too exaggerated for that. 

This is where true character penetration takes place. As you are writing a scene, forget about what your sister would say. Your sister would never be out on the limb where you’ve placed that character. For example, in real life the dissolution of a marriage occurs over a period of straitened years. Yet for your purposes, your “sister” in the novel has an affair because of all of the reasons her marriage is falling apart. Her husband’s finding out then causes a crisis. 

Now, your sister never had an affair. It might even be that, in real life, your brother-in-law is the one who cheated. But that doesn’t matter. Your story revolves around the characters you are featuring. If you realize that the sister character needs to have an affair in order for her story to keep developing, then the actual reasons for the breakup are twisted to your purposes. You’re not writing about your sister anymore. She started as your sister, yes, but she has morphed into a character, one who can control her destiny.

Exercise: Review a character that is based on a family member. Are you really capturing what they are like, or is the character fairly bland and unremarkable? Write down in a separate file the features of a sibling, say, that truly stand out. What are the incidents in his life that are most telling? Put in a few of those as back stories. Keep returning to them as you embellish the character. You’ll see the character become more vivid, even if he never did the stuff you’re relating.


Characters Taken from Real Life

Recalling moments from your life will spark some of your most original writing. As in any field, nothing beats hands-on experience for knowing the nuances of how a relationship or a plot event evolved. Yet adhering to real life does not work so well in the larger scheme of a novel. Life has so many nuances that you could write a thousand pages about a single week. 

That means the events of a novel have to be compressed. You need to relate just the interesting stuff. The compressed nature of a novel in turn squeezes its inhabitants into exaggerated creatures. True to life, yes, but within a novel’s inherent distortions of life. 

Trying to write from experience causes a common failing: the writer fails to separate his characters from their real-life models. People you know can be extremely limiting when building a novel. You need the freedom to discover where a character wants to take a plot thread. When the character is your sister, however, she will bend your plot to go in the direction that you know she would demand. That may be fine in some instances, but you can see the problem. The character has placed shackles on your imagination. 

In many cases, an even worse outcome ensues. Your sister, because what she wants is so realistic, makes your novel ordinary. You come back a few days later to a run of dialogue you’ve written and think, “OMG, this is so terrible. Even my sister is more interesting that that!”

You can use both approaches. Before you start the novel, write a character sketch that includes the realistic attributes you want a character to have. But once you start writing, listen to what the character wants. Let your fingers do the walking until you see where the next scene ends up. What frees a good character of his shackles is when he goes where he wants to go—not because that is what the real-life model would do, but because that serves your story best. 

Exercise: Pick a character and track how she is developing in any scene. When she talks, are you thinking of a specific person in your life? If so, dig deeper. What point has the character’s developmental arc reached at that point? What should she be doing for the plot at that point? Immerse yourself in what your fictional situation calls for, and pretty soon you’ll find that she is telling you—like magic—what she wants.

Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.