Wobbly Characters

A few weeks ago, I launched the first of an intended series of posts about breaking the reader’s suspension of disbelief. Then a deadline happened.

With apologies for the one or two of you who might possibly have been waiting on the edge of your seats for the next installment, I am now, at last, continuing.

Although one of the most prevalent reasons readers are bumped from the story are writer errors, inconsistent characters can wreak havoc with suspension of disbelief, too.

Readers come to your story, willing to play, anxious to accept your plotline, eager to enter your story world, and ready to meet your characters.

In fact, they want desperately to like your protagonist. This character is going to become their new bestie — even if for a short duration — and it’s up to you the writer to supply them with a character that’s appealing, likable, pro-active, clever, resourceful, admirable, and capable of heroism.

That seems straightforward enough, doesn’t it?

But I think writers hit trouble with characters for two primary reasons:

1) they try to create complexity the wrong way

2) they aren’t paying attention to their own story people

Let’s deal with #2 first.

How, you may be wondering, can a writer lose track of his character? Isn’t the character his creation? His baby?

But a sloppily designed character–one that’s thinly constructed with next-to-no background, few if any physical attributes, no tags other than a name chosen at random, and entirely lacking in motivation for whatever its writer intends for it to do–is quite easy to forget.

What happens when you can’t choose the right name for your character? You realize the importance of connotation in names, but you just can’t find it. Nothing seems right. Nothing really fits. So, with the pressure of a looming deadline upon you–or possibly just impatience to get started–you slap a temporary moniker on the character and proceed.

BOO! Wrong idea.

Sticking a temporary name on your elf is like trying to use one of those modern, stretchy-fabric Band-Aids that are supposed to be ouchless, but instead just fall off.

You call the elf Bob, promising yourself that you’ll find the right name later. But because Bob doesn’t work as the character’s name, you will probably forget it in the heat of writing your battle scene between the elves and the swamp lizards. So somewhere amidst the flying arrows and slashing swords, Bob becomes George. Or Jerry. Or Bill. Or XX.

Yeah, you know. You intend to fix it. But once the battle scene is over, you may be struggling with its problems that distract you away from your nameless elf, who isn’t really working as a character anyway.

If you can’t find the right name, you haven’t met your character properly. You don’t know him. And until you do, you can’t possibly write his dialogue or story actions with any degree of plausibility.

Not knowing your character means you will be hesitant when it comes to what he says and does. This tentative effect weakens the character. It’s easy to forget how he reacted in Scene 1 so that in Scene 7–when Nameless Elf needs to respond in a similar manner to whatever’s happening–you can’t remember what he did before, or you can’t remember his position, stance, or opinion–so you write his reaction differently.

Result? An inconsistent character that no reader will believe in.

Take your character and determine exactly what he looks like. Write a description that’s specific, not vague. Overflowing the sleek Porsche’s back seat, a drooling St. Bernard gusted hot breath on the nape of Joan’s neck is much more vivid than The big brown dog sat panting in the car behind Joan.

When you know what your character looks like–how tall is your elf? Are his pointed ears delicate and small, or huge like Dobby’s in the Harry Potter books? Are his eyes large and protruding? Does he have warts? Is his skin green or as pale as milk?–then you can think about what makes him tick.

If he lived with you, for example, in the here and now, who would he favor in the next presidential election? What’s his favorite food–snail eggs or chocolate chip cookies?

What’s his personality? Is he meek and mild-tempered? Is he rash and impetuous? Does he blurt out comments before he thinks? Is he incapable of lying? Or is he incapable of honesty? What are his best traits? What are his flaws?

Why is he in your story? Maybe you only intend him to appear in two scenes, complaining about your housecat’s forays into his garden, but however minor his role he should be vividly portrayed and matter to the story.

What is his goal? Why does he want that goal? If he fails to achieve his desire, what effect will that failure have on him?

By the time you answer all these questions, you will know that his name is Delfwin, for example. He has come alive to you. You now know him well.

And whether he’s important or minor to the story, your elf will be consistent and plausible each time he appears on the page.

As for reason #1 why story people fail to work, this occurs through a writer’s efforts to deepen character.

Perhaps a writing coach has told you that your character is too one-dimensional and needs to have more depth and complexity.

So you think, aha! I’ll come up with a more elaborate backstory for my shy, orphaned girl that’s backward for her age.

Accordingly, you weave a larger and more convoluted past for the character, making her an orphan raised by wolves from the age of one until she was five, at which time a forest ranger found her and brought her home for his wife to housebreak. Since learning to speak and eat cooked foods, Sheila Wolfbane has grown up wary of people, inclined to snap and lose her temper. But because her biological parents were concert musicians who died tragically in a plane crash in the Canadian wilderness, Sheila has considerable talent and plays the piano, violin, clarinet, and harmonica adeptly. She plans to attend Harvard and study environmental law.

Wow! Isn’t she now an amazing character? In draft one, Sheila was just an ordinary backwoods girl, but now … look at her!

I’d rather not, thanks.

Sheila isn’t any more complex in version two than she was in version one. The writer has invented a plethora of extra details about her, but that’s just more sequins glued to her shirt.

She won’t become complex until she has inner conflict. Let’s say that she acts meek and demure, avoiding eye contact and pretending to be shy, when in fact she hates Ranger Rick and Mrs. Rick for taking her away from her true family, her pack, and she’s planning to murder the Ricks so she can run back to the woods where she belongs.

Now when she snarls and snaps, she immediately shuts down her temper and apologizes, but inside she isn’t sorry. She wishes she could bite them and tear out their soft throats.

She’s psychotic, but she’s also more complex than before.

Too far out for your taste? Then perhaps Sheila survived the plane crash in the woods and lived on her own for several weeks until she was found. Trauma has rendered her mute. As she grows to young womanhood, she yearns to speak, wonders what the world is like beyond the forest, but is afraid to leave her home with the Ricks despite the fact that Ranger Rick is getting old and must retire soon. Sheila is terrified of change, yet curious of what she might see and learn. The young, handsome ranger taking Rick’s position is attracted to her. Sheila could live with him, and remain in the woods that are her refuge, yet a part of her wonders if she really loves this man or is just using him as a way to avoid facing her fears.

If a writer doesn’t understand how complexity is achieved, the piling on of more and more detail will at some point become implausible, even silly, and readers can no longer comfortably remain with the story.

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