Compared to You

So many times when I ask an author to make a lead character more distinctive, the response in the ensuing draft is a series of new background stories. I look through the scenes from the previous draft and see no changes, in the way the character thinks about what’s happening or the way he talks. The background stories are lumps inserted into an unchanged story. 

How does a character stand out and grab a reader’s attention? By the way she tells her story.  Her prism as the book goes on. Writing new background stories is only a first step. Then you have to carry the process forward to how the past affects how the character reacts in the present. 

That is undoubtedly harder—because you have to depart further from yourself. In writing a background story, you’re still able to maintain a comfortable distance between you and the character. The back story too is about another person, not you.  It’s unlikely, for instance, that you lost a buddy in a car bomb in Fallujah. It’s unlikely that your mother killed herself when you were 12.

The new background stories need to inform how the character acts at every step of the way. Chances are, a character that needs to become more distinctive is merely carrying the plot’s action—your Energizer bunny finds the next clue, for instance. In order to add depth, you first need to examine any thoughts you’ve written for the character. Then ask yourself: is that thought merely related to the action? Or, is it what I would think if I was in that situation?

See, that sort of writing is maintaining a nice, safe distance. You need to challenge yourself. Stop to think of the background work you’ve done. Using the Fallujah example, warfare changes an individual. You know that. At the least, you’ve read newspaper accounts about veterans returning from war in a state of shock. They’re damaged. Picking up a MAC-10 on the streets of Houston is different for them. You need to define that, right at that moment. How damaged? How would you write about a damaged individual? Who do you know that is damaged?

Now you’re in a perilous position. You’re having crazy thoughts about how the character might react. That reaction is just not normal at all. That’s wrong. I wouldn’t do that. 

Now let’s return to the original question: how do you make the character stand out? By doing things that seem wrong in your comfortable life.

Exercise: As you review a manuscript, put your background notes on a separate screen, or visibly on your desktop. Don’t get caught up in the scene, because you’ll be too accepting of what you’ve written. When you see a character’s thought, stop and turn toward the notes. Are all of those great thoughts in the background notes being enacted right at this very moment?

“Forever is composed of nows.”  ―Emily Dickinson

Copyright @ 2023, John Paine


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