Posts Tagged ‘characterization’

Doubt and desire

We hear a lot about making clear what the main character of a story wants. Desire leads to motive and thence to action. It’s a powerful catalyst for plot.

But desire isn’t homogeneous. It has fluctuations. Desire weaves its various fluctuations differently in different characters. That’s why there’s a danger in taking “what a character wants” too much at face value, especially for stories where characterization greatly matters.

I explored the idea of a character’s outright mistaken desire in this recent post. But today I’m talking about subtle gradations in a true desire, one the character will fulfill.

Latching onto character desire as a guiding principal may make the story appear wooden. The reader may feel manipulated. Family killed by marauding soldiers? Hero shut down and seeking revenge? Okay, got it–but what about doubt?

Doubt and desire

When a main character feels doubt about whether the object of desire is worthy, he or she may seem less than heroic. Do we really want that?

We do. It is even necessary.

It’s necessary because, for one thing, it keeps the reader guessing and adds tension. Giving up? Oh no! For another thing, it can increase empathy.

How do we look at people in our lives who never doubt? We see them as obsessive, perhaps. Self-satisfied. Narrow. It takes a master story teller to make Ahab in Moby Dick a worthy protagonist. The rest of us may want to tell a story more within our grasp.

I’m not talking here about a character who doubts it can be done–that is a plot moment that can be a dark night of the soul, and it’s another great tool in the fiction kit. I’m rather talking about one who doubts it should be done.

Does the outlaw ever wonder if his course of slaughter is destroying him? Does the main character’s quest ever seem worthless to her? Is there a point at which the love of the one person requires a sacrifice too great? (Dilemmas can be lovely foils for desires on the verge of becoming annoying!)

While we definitely want to establish the hero’s desire–I am in no way saying that it’s not important–I am saying that there is a place for complexity, and complexity will require doubt.

One way to weave this in is to introduce the price.

The cost of desire

Nothing comes without a price. For one thing, we have limited time and energy and thus we face choices between competing good things. In heroic action, the main character may lose something that makes the success poignant. And more meaningful. He wanted it so much he gave up something dear to him.

And right there is a great chance for a moment of doubt. Who would not pause before sacrificing something dear?

Even if the story doesn’t entail a heroic sacrifice, who, really, does not sometimes falter in their pursuit of the object of desire? How can we even relate to a character  who never stops to consider the price they are paying?

Therefore, doubt.

A fine balance

For most stories, doubt must be treated like a powerful spice. A little goes a long way.

Let’s not, for example, have an anguished main character who can’t decide what she wants, unless you really must write such a story (and good luck selling that one.) My advice is to not introduce moral dilemmas right away or more than once. And a couple moments of doubt, carefully dramatized, will be enough. Do you need to make explicit that the doubt has been overcome? Yes. But you can do that through action rather than internal monologue.

As with all aspects of fiction, it’s the author’s job to judge when and how much; what to put in and what to leave out. No one can teach us that. Our beta readers will have different opinions. The writer must decide.

It’s a fine balance of how much a character can doubt, and how much boldly desire. I was going to suggest 90 percent sure, 10 percent doubt, but that’s nonsense, of course. There isn’t a rule.

Alas, there are no rules. The writer decides.





Inner demons

You know that your major character is going to make or break your novel, so you’ve studied up. You’ve got a list of strengths and weaknesses, some defining quirks and maybe a back story to add credibility. Set to go, right?

No. Because so far the characteristics aren’t related to the story. Great characters aren’t built up from features, they are crafted with an eye to dramatic functions.

If you’re writing a story with even a smidgen of inner story (characterization) then you need to understand the role of weakness in character–otherwise known as  inner demons. These demons may be fear, ignorance, immaturity, crippling ambition, or any other negative impulse that places your major character at a disadvantage in doing what must be done. If  your hero is perfect on page one, he’s got nowhere to go (or grow) except to solve the plot problem. Read More…

The mistaken desire

Sometimes in stories what the major character wants is a big mistake. Not a mistake in storytelling terms, but in terms of what the character needs to learn. She firmly believes something is worth pursuing.

But she learns that she is wrong.

What she wants will be revealed as utterly false or superseded by a deeper, more urgent goal. In stories like these your basic story structure must be carefully handled so that you deliver a satisfying read, not a broken one.

There are several ways to play bait-and-switch with what the character wants:


This is when the character is placed in a unique position to sacrifice a personal goal for something greater. This may be a classic case of a moral dilemma, as in: Will the character give up a strong ambition for something larger than himself? In these stories, the ordinary–or the self-obsessed–person rises to heroic action.

Coming of age

Switching out the character’s driving desire is a classic strategy of coming of age stories. Your young character (or sheltered young adult) longs for something that is unworthy of them. (But not too unworthy, or it may be difficult to establish empathy with them early on.) She is naive in some basic, forgivable way.

Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz yearns for the excitement of distant lands. But in time what she desires is simply to go home. To put this approach in simpler terms, the character learns “what matters.”

The false ambition

The trick here is to make the first goal implicitly worthy. The story set up should provide a context within which we root for the protagonist’s goal. Make it a universal desire. But let other characters belittle the ambition. We establish empathy partly in reaction to mean-spirited obstacles. But the reader isn’t thinking deeply about the goal at this point–exactly the same position as the protagonist.

The character then embarks upon a journey of self discovery. And another goal gradually supplants the first. The character becomes someone capable of a larger vision.

As the story unfolds, more discerning characters cast doubt on the goal. But they aren’t to be trusted, perhaps, because they have their own agenda. The hero listens, but can’t give up the goal that has defined her. At this point the reader may well be ahead of the character. We know this is a fool’s errand. She does not.

This kind of story is tricky to plot. You’ll have important choices as to when the character intentionally abandons the false ambition. Plot point two, in film making terms, is a good place for a grand reversal. At this point, you must have a worthy goal lying in wait, a call to higher moral purpose that has been growing on the character. But let the reader still doubt whether the character can make the transition. This happens at the climax. The hero gives up the false desire and irrevocably acts on the greater one.

Some stories cry out for a bait-and-switch story goal. When handled with finesse, they can add an extra layer of interest to a character-driven story.





Even chimps can change

Today I’m thinking about how the major character of a novel changes through the story. In other words, his or her character arc.

Having the major character change through the story is one of the key ways an author knits plot to character. It is also a powerful tool to reveal character. But why, really, does a character have to change? Aren’t some characters fascinating enough without changing their spots?

The answer is usually no. Static characters who repeat their same strengths in answer to every challenge appear cardboard to us. (Exception: Gregory House in House, and other highly quirky characters. Except: are you, like me, getting tired of House? Is he never going to change? The series’ writers have a dilemma. If he learns about himself, he won’t delight us anymore.)

For most major characters, we need to see the plot act upon the person, changing them. If the events of the story aren’t powerful enough to shape a character, then the events are the wrong ones for that character. Read More…

Subtext in Dialog

Dialog in fiction is a proving ground for a writer. Here is where your ear for truth, your understanding of your characters, and your ability to convince us this scene is “real” comes to a head.

Too often, however, we write dialog that fails to snap and sounds a bit forced.

One of my favorite remedies for this problem is laying in something unspoken. Something is swimming under the surface of the conversation. It might be a minnow or a whale, but whether large or small, it is a lie or buried truth.

Subtext: buried topics

Hidden or unexpressed topics (called subtext) can lend more realism to dialog. This is because often the most important things on our minds cannot be said. People evade saying the truth for many reasons. Among them:

  • We’re afraid to be dismissed. (Think of courtship dialogue, for example.)
  • The subject is too personal or uncomfortable to share with that particular person. (For example, a grandmother raves about a grandchild, implying her unmarried daughter is missing out on family bliss. The daughter sees the manipulation, but sidesteps it.)
  • We can’t bear to engage with it because it’s too painful. (The other person is talking about their new baby. Unknown to them, the other person’s child died.)

Unspoken truths carry power by virtue of the silence. The magic of buried truths is that the deeper things are buried, the hotter they become. Think compost, and how it feels warm to the touch!

Sometimes the buried truth will spill out under stressful conditions. The character may artlessly blurt out the truth. When he does, he may not recognize that he has done so. (“I coulda been a contender.”) Or she now trusts the other person enough to give voice to the hidden thing. There are many variations on using things that cannot be said.

Note: For such submerged topics to add depth, the reader has to know what that “most important thing” is. Otherwise the reader’s experience of the dialog remains on the surface.

Sometimes subtext is as superficial as the issue of who will control the topic, as when the detective asks a suspect “Where were you Tuesday evening?” The response: “And where were you, inspector?” This is a power play, in subtext.

On the nose dialog

The opposite of evasive dialog is something called on the nose dialog, a style that when carried to an extreme can be painful to read. On the nose dialog is the first choice of inexperienced writers. This kind of dialog is a simple exchange between characters where people say exactly what they mean, nothing withheld.

Dialog of this sort may be most efficient for highly commercial fiction; but even there, the occasional use of subtext can lend snap to conversations. You can’t get buried topics into every scene, but the more you set up your novel for conflict, the more you cast your actors to be in opposition, the more material you have to work with.

Play with subtext; use when it is right for your characters, your scenes. Sometimes when we stop making sense, we reveal the heart more truly.