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Character in a nutshell

Can you describe your character’s essence or their raison d’etre, in a short phrase? How about Sam Gamgee’s “Some things are worth fighting for.” Or Scarlett O’Hara’s “I’ll never be hungry again!”

Our major characters are usually so deep we need a whole novel to flesh them out. But haven’t we chosen a character because she or he embodies a specific dramatic purpose? If this is true, we should know what that is. We should know it so well, we can say it in a phrase.

Sounds hard, but bear with me. Ask yourself what does my character want or believe in their very core? What limitation do they always fear and fight against? What gives their lives meaning in their own estimation?

Although it does take many pages to define these fears and aspirations in relation to the plot, the author must know them more directly. For this reason, it may be helpful if a writer creates a visceral handle for central characters, to keep their through line clearly in view. Something the character would say.

In my notebook for a recent novel, I found the results of one of these through line exercises. I boiled down my words to one phrase for each of eleven characters. I was surprised at how quickly the essence of each important character came to me.

Here was the product of that exercise: Kim: For the innocent. Julian: Never again. Martin (a teenager): I always screw up. Antagonist: Revenge is sweet. Rose: I have my part. Gustaw: Fight them in the shadows. Owen: We will out think them. Lloyd: I got screwed. The spymaster: My hands are tied. Elsa: Appearances deceive. Walter: I’ve got your back.

I kept coming back to these lines, staying focused on their wisdom and clarity. In the midst of a messy novel (aren’t they all?) wisdom and clarity can be a life line.


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