All the World’s a Stage

I came across a quote the other day that stopped me short: “He was less of an actor than any man I ever saw.” I focused on the word “actor,” struck by how it applies so well to a novel’s characters. The truth is, we all have multiple facets in our makeup that we turn off and on at will. I’m not talking about Sybil and her 16 personalities. This observation applies to the way that we adopt a persona to fit the circumstances. If you’re in a job interview, you’re going to be earnest and likable. If you’re leaving a tedious dinner engagement, you’re going to be cutting and irreverent. Same person but different prompt and different listener.

So why can’t you do that with your characters? You want them to be multilayered. The principal way that Sam, say, operates might be: he’s an enthusiastic extrovert. He likes to champion causes, to mingle with people, to persuade them of his convictions. Yet who is Sam when he is alone on a Sunday morning? How does he cope with the slings and arrows we all endure? 

When you ask yourself those questions, a different dynamic starts to unfold. Sam might have some deep, dark reasons why he is so affable. If you (1) investigate what they might be for your own knowledge and (2) tell the reader a background story or two, now his confident perch could be much more unsteady. He has to fight to be confident. That deep, dark nature could threaten to overthrow the good in him—and then where would the novel be? 

In other words, you create tension within the character, and that makes the reader nervous. We all fear being exposed for the embarrassing things we’ve done. Better yet, the secret things we’re doing right now, the illicit longings that we have, ones even our partner doesn’t know about. The reader can come to worry that the dark side will usurp the confident side. To create a rising character arc, you can show a series of incidents where the dark side is progressively winning. You know how to do that, of course, because you have identified what that other personality is. 

Example: Try an experiment. Go to an airport and watch all of the confident types that strut through the terminal. Better yet, sit down in a food court and watch them while they’re eating and checking out other people. What are they afraid of betraying? When you see a furtive look, jot it down and imagine what the back story behind that look is. Better yet, write down a list of possible reasons and then play out the string on each one. Everyone appears to be so confident—because they’re acting. 


So Serious

Except for those authors wishing to be satiric, characters in a novel pursue their aims purposefully. A writer wants to mount tension in a romantic scene, or aims for discouragement after an untoward plot event. Yet what happens if, while you are reviewing the manuscript, the lead character feels dull? I know that while I’m editing, I can find myself thinking: “This character is so earnest.” 

If you experience that, you need to ask: how you would react in real life? Except in the most dire circumstances, don’t you find yourself thinking, or commenting sotto voce to a friend, some humorous remark that you know is totally inappropriate? You can cry or you can laugh. Life is a beach. A sardonic observation or two will not undercut a serious subject to the extent that it is damaging.

You can consciously employ this attitude while exploring what your main character(s) is thinking. Instead of a dutiful recitation of how verbally abusive your father was when you were sixteen, write the passage from an ironic point of view. Poke fun at your memory. Try to insert a few wry observations, as though you were retelling the story to a close friend. Your friend isn’t going to put up with you taking yourself so seriously. Plus, you want to be entertaining, even if the memory is truly painful. 

So you make light of it. After all, everybody knows that the more grueling an experience is, the better the story it makes later. Why aren’t you doing that when you write? Aren’t you trying to entertain the reader? 

Better yet, use multiple points of view during the telling. We do it all the time. I can’t tell you how often I catch myself thinking: “You’d better not . . .” when the “you” refers to myself. I have an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. Why can’t you employ that from inside a character’s head? Tell us what you fired back at your father, but then insert a wry comment of how you’d feel if your daughter fired that back at you. 

You see, the problem with earnest is that it’s a barrier between you and your character. You’re trying to depict what George down there on the paper is doing, and that’s serious business. But don’t you think George knows that? Does George sit around all day quoting Kant to himself? Lighten up. And watch your character sparkle with all the contradictory stuff bubbling inside you.

Exercise: Review the manuscript for interior monologues that are at least a paragraph long. Read the material through a first time, not allowing yourself to write anything. Then go back through, looking for places to inject commentary, just the way you would if you were bantering with your best friend. Don’t overdo it; a little goes a long way. Then the next day, see if you feel you’re connecting better with the character.


Where I Shouldn’t Be

Shame can be a compelling way to ensure a reader’s rapt attention. When a character is engaged in activities that provoke embarrassment, or even only potential humiliation, the reader can’t bear to look away from the page. All you need is a situation in which you know the character is being outrageous or combative or prowling about in places he ought not to be.

For example, Andre Dubus III’s novella Listen Carefully features a husband who is trying to understand why his wife of many years would leave him for another man. As part of his off-kilter responses, he wanders through the home they used to share—and that the reader knows is forbidden to him. As a reader you almost want to shout, “Get out of there before she comes home!” But the character is going to do no such thing, because the author knows he has us right where he wants us.

How do you make this premise work? Part of the technique consists in setting up a social situation in which the character can be shamed. That context can be as slight as a teenage girl walking into a party filled with classmates that she knows look down on her, determined to confront a boy who has done her wrong. No matter what the circumstances, you stir interest simply by creating countering forces that make us cringe.

Another key factor in making such a sequence work is the character’s motivation. Why is that girl so determined to tell the boy off? What did he do to her? What type of person is she that she would brave the lions’ den? Does she normally flip people off, or has she been driven to extremes by what he did? You can see from just these possible variables how gripping the scene would be. 

If she regularly chews people out, then the embarrassment factor is lessened. She obviously has a thick skin. If she is shy, on the other hand, and she feels she must make her views known, now we’re starting to feel squeamish. Even better, the power of her motivation is driving not only the character but the entire plot forward. We are carried along by her desire. 

Finally, it is important to rub the reader’s face in the shame. That entails providing minutely observed details and interior monologues that overtake the reader thoroughly. You want to linger as long as possible. Drag it out, don’t let the reader escape. You may well find that the emotional tide you’ve created carries you to a higher plane throughout the rest of the story.

Exercise: Check your manuscript for scenes featuring confrontation. Is your protagonist confident, strident, sure of the rightness of his cause? If so, ask yourself if the circumstances might be altered so that his standing with the other person(s) is more tenuous. Could he be humiliated? Even if he is confident, is it possible to alter the other character’s response in an unexpected fashion that leaves the protagonist humiliated?

Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.