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.

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