Preschool and the Craft of Character

My daughter started preschool this month. Hard to believe she’s old enough, but she is. Watching her go into that school all by herself was a little surreal. She was ready, though—she turned and gave me a big smile, that smile that showed she was proud of herself. And she should be—she’s handled the new routine very well.

The really weird thing for me is that now she has this entire facet of her life that I’m not a part of. Seven and a half hours a week where she’s “off stage” to me and I have no idea what’s going on with her. My toddler is no help, either. When you ask what she did in school, she says, “I don’t know.” Sometimes I think 3-year-olds are really teenagers in disguise.

The point I’m making (there really is one) is that my daughter’s “off stage” activities will change her as a person and will change the way she interacts with the world once I pick her up. This is the same with all of our characters—they all have a life “off stage” in our stories, too. Or they should.

The main character, and perhaps some of the other leading characters, don’t have much off-stage time. But some of the supporting, recurring characters do. We need to remember that their lives continue even when we don’t see them. Every time they show up in our book, they should be subtlely different. Perhaps one time they’ve had a fight with their other half, the next they’re late for work, the next they just learned that they got the job they’ve been wanting. They don’t need to have experienced a life-changing event to be different. Maybe they simply haven’t had their morning cup of coffee.

We need to remember this for every character we see more than once in the book—even our main character. If there is a scene where they are off stage, take a moment to think about what they are doing while this other scene is happening. Are they sleeping? Driving in a car frantic to get somewhere? Having lunch? Talking to mom on the phone? Once you know what they’ve been doing, you can introduce the results of their activities the next time we see them.

The reader need never know what our characters do off stage—honestly, they never should know, because if it was important enough for the reader to know we probably should have shown them in the first place. But keep in mind that whatever it was will affect how that character interacts with the others. If their off stage activity has made them irritable, show it. If it’s made them happy, show it.

By shading our recurring characters with the impacts of their off stage activities, we add depth to them and give the reader a sense that their lives go on even when we’re not watching. After all, that’s what we want the readers to believe when they close the book: That our characters are real people whose lives continue after the story ends.

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