In BookMarc #14 we said that a character should develop as the story moves along. How much will depend on the length of the story. A novel gives us time to fully develop a character while a short story limits us to the main theme-line. And we said characterization is also genre-dependant. But even in a time-compressed action story we can reveal a lot of character background reflected it in the character’s actions.
Let’s take our old friend, Protag, and our two-hour ticking bomb from our discussion on plotting, and add to it people trapped inside a elevator. Protag and three men are out in the hall and the building is in the middle of a desert. Hey, it’s just an example. So, with people on the elevator, and a ticking bomb, four men in the hall have the option of trying to defuse the bomb, or slink away like cowards.
Protag’s for slinking, but that triggers an oft-remembered flashback of him as a child hiding in a closet while his mother is beaten. That shame keeps him from being the first one out the door. He’ll hang in… for a bit.
A young mother crying inside the elevator triggers another memory. He is leaving his wife because of a knockdown fight. But the young mother also flashbacks memories of his own children. So he hangs in some more.
And so it goes.
Protag’s memories play off the reality of the bomb as the four men sweat to defuse it. Meanwhile they swap stories back and forth with those trapped inside the elevator about their pasts, their hopes and fears, their brave and cowardly acts. All the sharing, plus working toward a common goal, builds a community bond between them, and these, combined Protag’s remembrance of the cowardly act in the closet, overpowers thoughts of his individual self-preservation. He grabs deep inside for a courage he didn’t know he had and hangs in. He is going up or down with these guys.
As the last seconds tick off, Protag’s raw emotions are laid bare, the fear that has haunted him since hiding in the closet has caused him to run from everything. And he realizes that even now, with his wife and children, despite his love for them, that fear is causing him to cut and run rather than stay and work it out.
Then the bomb is defused.
Suddenly it’s over. Protag is a hero, and the bonding with the others in the struggle has banished forever the ghost hiding in the closet. He is free at last to love himself, and by loving himself, love those around him.
Okay, we have a lot of plot there, and of course we’re TELLING everything rather than SHOWING, but this is an example of how it’s done. We don’t plop a character’s whole background out on the table. That would be boring, or it would be another story. We weave it in like colored thread as important points come up. Something triggers a memory and we get a glimpse of our character’s past. This in turn helps us to understand why he or she does what he or she does.
If you want a really good example–aside from the magnificent, tremendous, fantastic books at my Sidewalkbooks.com website–check out The Music Room by Dennis McFarland. It’s fifteen or more years old now, but it is almost a text book on characterization, with some fine descriptions as well. I’d like to claim the idea as my own, but a writing teacher of mine, Marcy Heidish, The Torching, touted it to me.
Which brings up another point we touched upon way back in BookMarc #2. If we want to write, we need to read. We need to see how different authors solve the various plotting and character problems they’ve faced, and learn from them. We can’t copy the material, but we can copy the problems and the solutions.
One more caution before we move on. Most new writers when starting out, make the mistake of trying to put all the backstory up front. Their idea is to get it out of the way so they can get on with the real story. The trouble with this, folks, is that readers will hang in with a good plot and wait for backstory, but they won’t hang with a boring backstory while they wait for the good plot.
Okay, if I’ve convinced you that we need to reveal our characters to our readers, we must take the first step of revealing our characters to ourselves. We’ll look at that in BookMarc #16.
Finally, I limit the number of subject listed at one time, so may I suggest if you want to keep uo with them you either sign on to be notified or check back every four weeks. Also table of contents is at the top of the page.
Peter E. Abresch – BookMarc© February 13, 1998. Updated October 10, 2014