The contradition in character

In writing the novel, there is a difference between characterization and character.

Characterization is a list of attributes that describes your character, including how she looks, her skills, her physical capabilities, values and ingrained standards. These traits are the sort of things that we know about our acquaintances, for example. They are important for your story, but they are nonetheless superficial.

They do not define true character.

True character is the essence of the person. Character is the part that remains when the surface is peeled away. You might almost say that characterization hides the person. If this seems counter intuitive, bear with me a moment, because this is a very fun doorway into your story. It is a concept that you can play with, and that will help you create your plot.

Inside vs. outside

It’s fair to ask why the inside of a major character should be different from the outside. Don’t the forging events of our lives shape our outer selves as well as our core? No. Not usually, and not in the way we need for our best fictional characters.

Leaving aside for a moment the storytelling rationale for this, consider your own essential self.  Are your deeper desires apparent to your acquaintances? Are your fears? I’ll bet they aren’t. Why would there be such a disconnect in your character? The answer is because we don’t want to lay our secrets bare to the general world. We hold back parts of ourselves for the sake of things like dignity, privacy, self-esteem, public acceptance and even safety.

This is true as well for your major character. She will not easily (and not early on) show what she is made of.

For your major character to compel our continued attention to the page, he must be capable of surprising us. If you have already told us what is under the surface in say the first 40 pages, then there is little to learn about this character. We are bored by page 75.

A major character should be complex enough to have unlooked-for depths–or be capable of a profound change in those depths. Characters who do not have this quality are called flat. They are homogenous: one thing all the way through. When the opposition escalates, all the flat warrior can do is carry a larger sword. He will need one, because there is nothing further within that he can draw upon, or no capacity for revelatory change.

Inner core drives plot

It takes some careful craft to arrange for this surprising core, but persevere. An unexpected payoff will be in plotting.

With your character’s true (inner) self firmly in mind, craft a list of characterizations that will allow her core to remain hidden. Is she cynical and defensive? Let her inner world be tender. Is he mocking and casual? Let us slowly learn his warrior heart or let him plumb his depth to find it.

Imagine story events that could strip away the outer traits and reveal the truth underneath. They would have to be powerful events forcing choices on the character. Dramatic circumstances: heated and memorable. Oh wait, those are the sort of plot points we’re all looking for! Exactly.

I really like how Robert McKee puts this aspect of the novel:

True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure–the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature. . . . The finest writing not only reveals true character, but arcs or changes that inner nature, for better or worse, over the course of the telling.

Successful stories are about interesting, highly driven people. Their story arc takes them (and us) from the outside to the inside. From known to hidden. The organizing principle for this arc is the crucible of events.

Or as McKee puts it:

The function of structure is to provide progressively building pressures that force characters into more and more difficult dilemmas where they must make more and more difficult risk-taking choices and actions, gradually revealing their true natures, even down to the unconscious self.

Weighty stuff. I think I’ll go back to my WIP and see if I can use these insights to spark a deeper character.

More on the theme of inner forces: my post on Inner demons.

2 Responses

  1. […] your novel. Roz Morris advises on what to do if you hate writing a character; Kay Kenyon explores the contradiction in character; and Darcy Pattison explains 4 things a character list reveals about your […]

  2. Stephanie says:

    I thought about this today as I looked at my MC’s character arc. In the first part of her life she seems like a model child until she gets to puberty and chooses to give in to temptation that leads her to the consequence of transforming her inside out. The second part of her life is dealing with that transformation, realization of her true identity and surviving being hunted. She evolves into a contradiction of her former self. It’s this part of her life that the reader gets to see what she’s truly made of.

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