Built-in Attitudes

What separates the wheat from the chaff in character portrayal? The sureness of the narrative voice. A good writer knows his characters so well, everything they do or say in a given scene rings true. You, as the reader, knew they would do that. How is such alchemy created? Does a writer require extraordinary gifts in communing with the Muse?

While genius helps, similar results can be achieved through hard work—off the manuscript page. You need to know your characters well enough so that by the very way they speak or think, a world of past interactions is implied. That cannot be accomplished solely through pausing, while writing a scene, and intuiting what a character would say. Those sorts of choices are safe. You don’t have to work too hard; the right thing just seems to come out, like a birthday surprise. Yet if something you grab lies close to the surface, guess how deep your character portrayals will be.

You can start by singling out your significant character relationships. The tangled web, for example, of two estranged sisters would benefit from soul searching. First, you need to examine their interactions during the course of the book. How do they develop? The opening salvos of mutual hostility seem easy enough to write, but are they really? From the very start you have to devise a reason why they would keep on interacting. It’s very easy to avoid a person, for instance, during the few days of mourning a parent and reading a will. Just stick a husband in between them.

You need to do the off-page searching through how both the protagonist and the counterpart feel about their interactions in the book. If the sisters converge fondly over seashell days, what was the relationship back then? One sister almost certainly ordered the other one around. If the protagonist is the little sister, how did she feel, over the years, about being ordered around? Equally as important, how did her sister feel about giving the orders? Then project ahead: how does that affect the causes of their eventual estrangement? 

You can proceed the same way with each plot event they share. Keep asking yourself: what is the history? You can write out entire scenes in the past that will aid in the discovery—ones that won’t appear in the book. The result is: when one of the sisters, draped in black, walks into the living room, she has a built-in attitude toward her sister. In every scene that follows, you know how that attitude is going to change. You know, because you took the time to find out.

Exercise: The baked-in knowledge about a character extends to his interactions with others. To continue the example, what has the protagonist been telling her husband during all those years of estrangement? He’s going to parrot, in his simplistic way (because he doesn’t understand the complex bond) what his wife has been telling him. So how would he react if the sisters start connecting?

“Easy reading is damn hard writing.” —Nathaniel Hawthorne

Copyright @ 2024, John Paine

No comments:

Post a Comment

Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.