All the World’s a Stage

A problem that I encounter frequently in the manuscripts I edit is how one-dimensional the protagonist is. That’s why I was so intrigued when I came across a quote the other day that stopped me short: “He was less of an actor than any man I ever saw.” That remark applies so well to a novel’s lead character. You can add depth to a portrayal simply by focusing on the situation she finds herself in. 

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 assume guises given the situation. You 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, with true-to-life texture. The principal way that Sam, say, operates might be: he’s an enthusiastic extrovert. He likes to champion causes, to be 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 back story or two, now his confident perch could be much more unsteady. He has to fight to be confident. That deep, dark nature might 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. 

“When a man is wrapped up in himself, he makes a pretty small package.”  —John Ruskin

Copyright @ 2023, John Paine

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