Inward, Not Onward

As the old adage goes, a person’s true character is revealed in a crisis. That’s a boon for a writer, because a novel is a highly compressed period of crises in a character’s life. The plot events are designed to demonstrate the person’s qualities (showing, not telling). All of these statements are uncontroversial matters of fact. Yet you have to ask yourself: are you getting the maximum impact from the crises you devise?

I’ll focus on the most common crisis in fiction, a death. A hole in the novel’s universe is ripped open and it must be repaired. Many beginning writers are industrious about weaving plot threads that spin off that event, trying to create red herrings and the like that keep the game of reading delightful. What they neglect to their peril, however, is how the crisis affects their lead character.

Why do you think so many of the murders in fiction happen to close relatives of the protagonist? The death opens a portal into a hero’s emotions. Anyone who has experienced the death of a loved one knows that grief strikes in inexplicable waves of sorrow. The bereft one feels the black hole as an almost tangible entity, the gap of nothingness that will never be filled. He remembers times he shared with the deceased person, how good they were.  

So, before you trundle off on your merry schemes that could just as easily unfold if sorrow didn’t occur, you might want to ask yourself: how am I going to get the reader to identify with my heroine in her time of crisis? After all, identification with a lead character is a huge part of what sells books. You might want to write a few background stories that involve her and the dead person, filtered through the glass of grief-stricken reflection. You might want some spots of deep funk when she really doesn’t want to get out of bed. We are not Energizer bunnies, so why should your protagonist be?

When a lead character is not related to the dearly beloved, how is a crisis constructed for him? Usually what you find is that he has a personal issue of another sort, one that plagues him throughout the novel, such as a terrible past deed. Again, that conundrum opens a window into his feelings. We can crawl through that opening and nestle inside. Rather than a bunny, he is a lumbering bear prone to bouts of melancholy. In other words, just like us. 

Exercise: Take advantage of what you know about times of sorrow in your own life. One reason Tolstoy’s novels are so great is that both of his parents were dead by the time he was nine years old. You too have suffered losses, and you can likely transfer your personal experiences to create character depth.


Answering the Why

As a writer starts a story, objective facts tend to emerge first. A passage can describe how a teenager gets from here to there: say, hurrying from the front door to the family car and out the driveway. While the details may be precise, such as the slate front steps, the facts don’t evoke how the character experiences what he is doing. Instead, you need to focus on the why.

Start by examining what facts are being told. Rather than describing how the teenager walks, opens the car door, etc., focus on the situation. A teenager hurrying to a car is not operating in a void, but within a context of his relationships with other characters. Why is he hurrying—in personal terms? Is he afraid that his mother will appear at the front door and countermand her permission to let him use the car? If so, what does that say about the mother? Is she overly strict? Do his friends always laugh at him because she is so strict? And what about the dad? Why does he allow the mother to browbeat her son? You could, of course, turn the question on its head. What has the teenager done in the past with the car that makes her afraid of his driving it that night?

All of this information can be imparted by using this seemingly trivial scene as a way to show what the character is like. The walking, opening the car door, etc., is flat. The need to get the hell out of the house is involving. 

If the boy is afraid of his mother’s changing moods, you can anchor what type of relationship they have by describing her. Is she wearing a business suit or a housecoat? Is she drinking gin or herbal tea? What about a sentence to describe the father, standing in the background of the mother-son interchange? You can move on, once the young man is settled in the car, to describe his get-up for his night out. Is he wearing an alligator shirt or a badge of Megadeath? What, since appearances are so important to teenagers, does he feel about his clothes? How much has his mother allowed him to get away with?

You are taking objective facts and imbuing them with subjective value. Clothes do make the man, so you can take advantage of that. Transform a pedestrian description of getting from here to there to charge the narrative with interpersonal dynamics. And, by the way, skip all the words describing the here-to-there. You’ve entered a new realm entirely, the one where novelists live.

Exercise: Begin by finding long paragraphs in your manuscript. Those are the ones ripe for converting from outward to inner. Do you see a lot of physical descriptions? Pick out one or two and ask: why is the character doing this? What meaning can I derive from the way the two major characters react to each other in the passage? Can I draw out meaning that has lasted for a long time? Stop for a short paragraph to tell us why they have never gotten along.

Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.