Eating Away at Characters

As I sat in the dentist’s office as my daughter got her cavities filled, I thought about the types of things eating away at people, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

Physically, disease eats away at people. Think cancer or dementia or autoimmune problems. Those things quietly gnaw away at the person, stealing pieces of them as they progress.

Emotionally, everyone has their demons. Jealousy or anger or fear. Sometimes these emotions run unseen, deep underground, eroding the person from within.

Spiritually, people wrestle with feelings of inadequacy, or frustration, or failure. They may feel stuck, or like their dreams are dead. This daily numbing of the spirit can lead to apathy and just going through the motions.

The hidden problems that eat away at people on a daily basis are interesting to apply to characters. We all try and give our characters at least one major flaw, usually one they have to overcome by the end of the story, but I know I don’t often think too deeply beyond that. A smaller, repressed undercurrent running through the whole book layers the character and makes them more authentic.

For instance, suppose your character has always resented how easily their sibling seems to accomplish anything they set out to do, while they struggle and get nowhere. This resentment explode at some inopportune moment in the plot. It’s an extra layer of tension bubbling away under the surface the entire story.

Examining the unseen elements eating away at our characters will add nuance and depth to the characters and the story. Hopefully the story events will clean out and fill these demons gnawing away at the character—just like with my daughter’s cavities.

Secrets: The Spice of Story

I’ve been thinking about secrets this week. We all have secrets. We’ve all kept secrets in our lives both for ourselves or for others. We are aware that everyone has secrets they keep.

Most of our secrets are light. A surprise party. An embarrassing thing we did when young. Our real age.

But some people carry heavy secrets. Ones that can eat at you, especially if you carry them a long time. Abuse. Infidelity. A crime.

While they can create difficulties in real life, secrets are what make our stories compelling—and I see three distinct kinds of secrets in a work of fiction.

One secret is the author secret. These are things the author knows that the reader doesn’t. All those questions we are taught to raise, especially at the beginning of the story,  are hints at secrets the author is keeping. In a well-written book, all those secrets will be revealed in due time.

A second is the reader secret. These are things the reader knows that the characters don’t. We all know the tense feeling of knowing the killer is hiding in the closet while the characters are blissfully unaware. These reader secrets build suspense in the story and make the reader a part of the experience.

The third kind are character secrets. These are secrets characters keep from each other. These make the story rife with  misunderstandings and conflict. Juicy stuff! One character may think another is betraying her, when really he is protecting her from something she doesn’t know about. Readers keep reading to see how the secrets get revealed and what the consequences will be.

Secrets in stories create the tension and conflict that draw people into your story.

And in real life, enjoy the light secrets that can be delightful to keep, but if you are carrying a heavy secret…consider that it may be time to finally put it down. Let someone help you carry the weight.

Our Characters’ Other Lives

Today was Parent Visitation Day at my daughter’s school. We got a peek into this world she inhabits—a world we know very little about. The older my daughter gets, the more of her life happens out of our view, out of our sight. It’s her “other life.”

So she has this other life, this “offstage” life as it were, and what happens there impacts how she acts when I pick her up—when she is back “onstage.” If she had a good day, she will be happy and cheerful. If something is bothering her about school, she will be upset or pensive.

The same holds true for the characters in our stories. While our POV characters are rarely offstage, many of the secondary characters are. And of course any “walk-on” or “cameo” characters also enter our story having come from their own offstage life.

What happens to them while they are offstage is important. It will impact how they interact with the main character. A secondary character who was up all night with a screaming baby will react to a situation differently than one who had a good night’s sleep. And if you have a secondary character who is secretly working against the protagonist, what they do while offstage is vitally important.

Yet I find that I often do not consider my secondary character’s other lives when I write. They flit in and out of the story with just the right attitude, the needed info, fulfilling whatever need I have to fulfill. They are often too perfect in that way. And yet I find myself being lazy because it takes too long to visualize what they’re doing when they’re offstage. I mean, I’m juggling enough just trying to deal with the main character and the villain, right?

Wrong. I need to consider my other characters’ offstage lives more. Why? For a few of reasons. First, because it deepens their characters. I get to know them better, and so can write them with more nuance. Second, because it’s more realistic—life happens to people even when you’re not there to witness it. And third, because it can add tension to your story, especially in scenes where there is not much external tension or conflict.

After all, your secondary character could be having coffee withdrawal, and therefore be unlikely to follow the protagonist on a half-baked adventure. Or they could be coffee-stoked, and therefore they will follow the protagonist on that very same half-baked adventure simply because they can’t sit still. A variable as small as that can make a big difference in how a scene goes.

My friend Keith Strunk once said that even if your character is only borrowing a cup of sugar, there needs to be a motivation behind it (he’s an actor, can you tell?). What happened to that character before he showed up asking for the cup of sugar will determine how he reacts when you tell him that you have no sugar. If he had a bad day, he will react poorly. If he had a good day, he will react indifferently.

As a writer, which sugar-borrower would you want in your story? The one that bursts into tears or becomes irate when you have no sugar, or the one that shrugs and goes home to quietly eat the chocolate chips straight out of the bag? I know which one I’d want.

Do you consider your characters’ other lives when you write? How do you keep track of them all?

Character Goals in Fiction

I talked last week about the Premise in fiction, and how it can help underpin your entire story. I mentioned briefly in that post that clarifying character goals was also recommended to help make my middle grade manuscript The Egyptian Enigma more focused.

One of the exercises developmental editor Kathryn Craft suggested to me was to go through the entire manuscript and write down the characters’ goals for every scene. If your main character’s goal in the scene is not somehow related to the book’s overall story goal, then the scene is either not needed or needs to be reworked.

I figured that would be easy. I mean, my main character is doing all these things to try and accomplish a specific story goal, right? So obviously he has a goal in every scene.

Turns out, not so much.

Or rather, his goal sometimes has nothing to do with the main story goal he is pursuing. When his goal is to set the table, that doesn’t do much to forward the plot. That scene can go.

And of course you must remember that your main character is not the only character in the scene with a goal. Every character in a scene has their own goals they are trying to accomplish—and ideally they should be conflicting with the main character’s goal. This creates tension and conflict in every scene.

This scene-goal exercise does not take a very long time to do. The real trick is to be honest with yourself while doing it. Don’t write the goals you meant your main character to have—write the goals he actually has as written on the page. Once you do that, excess scenes become very clear.

So, to recap: Your main character will have a story goal—what he is trying to accomplish in that book. If your book is part of a series, he has a series goal, which will be resolved in the final book of the series. But he also needs to have scene goals, which drive the scene, give it purpose, and forward the overall plot. Other characters will also have scene goals which will conflict, obstruct, or sometimes coincide with the main character’s goals.

That’s a whole lot of goals—but looking at them closely will give you a tighter focus to your entire book.

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