STATS VS VOICE
When developing characters, it’s often most natural to think big and broad, to ask questions like, what’s this person’s fatal flaw? Strengths and weaknesses? How many charisma, and intelligence points do you give out? Deciding your character’s “stats” is important, and something I try to revisit throughout the writing process. By keeping an overhead view of each character’s most general traits, you can make sure you don’t stray away from the character’s most fundamental qualities in the process of crafting the plot or devising an effective scene. It’s easy to get lost in the details of a scene and lose the big picture;
But knowing a character’s general traits isn’t enough. You must translate your knowledge of a character’s “stats” into a close kind of familiarity I’ll refer to as voice. In stories written in first and close third person (ie most of them) voice is what makes the prose reflect the main character’s thoughts, even when the events of the story do not involve the main character directly. Voice is about making sure the details are right – about knowing which words the main character uses, the way she casually describes friends and family, the little evasions and assumptions she makes when she summarizes events.
While “stats” are big, abstract generalizations you make when you analyze the behavior of a character from a distance, voice establishes how that character reacts to and processes the particulars of a situation. Having a good psychological understanding of the character in the abstract – i.e. knowledge of “stats” – will help you give that character a voice that makes sense, BUT it does not mean the character will emerge fully-formed with his own unique way of talking and thinking. Most authors still need to work hard to create a voice that’s unique, believable, and fits the character.
My biggest suggestion for how to develop a voice is to ask yourself small questions. More than anything, developing voice relies knowing the tiny details of the character’s psyche. To be able to convincingly write from the perspective of a character, you need to know how they act in, and react to, normal everyday situations. Ask yourself, what bands would the main character enjoy? What movies? How do they interact with service people (waiters, etc)? How many friends do they have, and how often do they see them? Do they always keep appointments, or cancel last second? It also helps me to think of the character as an acquaintance I see once in a while. I think about how it would feel to talk with them in an innocuous situation.
When the answers to these questions come naturally, intuitively – when it seems obvious that my character’s favorite movie is Shrek or whatever – this is when I know I have created someone rich and complex. This is the first sign that I’ve managed to translate the big, broad generalizations about the character’s personality – the character’s “stats” if you will – into the details of the character’s everyday actions.
It’s easy to make a character a stereotype when she serves a symbolic purpose in the story. For example, a character that is written to be a source of inspiration and guidance, a symbol of tragedy, or the cause of another character’s pain is likely to become stereotypical. It’s not that you should never write characters that stand for concepts – stories need structure and symbolism, and minor characters will end up serving roles that are limited. The trick – the line that’s hard to walk – is to make the characters symbolic while hinting at a more complicated, human inner life. To get philosophical for a second, everyone does this tightrope walk constantly – we think of our friends and families as real people with independent lives, but we also sometimes think of them as accessories to our own life, as characters who fill certain roles.
The #1 way I’ve found to avoid this problem is to write, on the side, scenes from the point of view of minor characters at risk of becoming stereotypes. Again, a good strategy for developing a convincing voice is to ask yourself small questions about the character. If you can write a passage filtered through the lens of a minor character’s thoughts and feelings, you likely know a lot about them. You can then transfer your newfound knowledge, in small ways, to the main text of the story. Another way to avoid creating stereotypical main characters is by thinking about people in your life who have similar traits. Who in your life resembles this person? What makes this person in your life seem real, more than just a stereotype?
Remember: it’s not necessarily bad to create characters with some stereotypical traits; there are many real, complicated people who have stereotypical traits, as well. As long as you go beyond just establishing the stereotypical traits to determining how these traits inform the characters’ mindset and behaviors, learning what it would feel like to interact with these characters as real people, you are not creating a stereotype. Similarly, characters with unusual, rarely-portrayed combinations of traits are not necessarily complex or well developed. You can just as easily make a thinly sketched weird character as a thinly sketched stereotypical one.
CHARACTER AND CLIMAX
It’s easy for climactic scenes – big, dramatic moments like breakups or fights – to feel overextended and fake. When a climax feels unbelievable, it almost always comes down to character development. There are three problems I often see:
- The way characters behave when upset feels stereotypical and unnatural.
It’s really really easy to think about the general, stereotypical way people behave during a fight, or in a crisis – they scream at each other, they accuse each other, they fight and throw each other out of the house. Our idea of what drama looks and sounds like, internalized from thousands of movies and TV shows, makes it very easy to write a stereotypical climax. It makes it easy to assume, for example, that angry characters will yell at each other. But the reality is that people who are angry at each other don’t all scream at each other – their reactions in a dramatic situation will be as varied and distinct as their personalities. Similarly, in a high fantasy novel or an action packed thriller, the ways the characters physically fight will also vary widely depending on each combatant’s personality.
I often try to focus just as much on how the characters behave during a fight as what the characters are fighting about and why. In many well told stories, the way characters fight in a climactic battle or talk to each other during a break up does more to reflect their personalities than who they’re fighting with or what they’re actually saying.
2) The way a character acts in the climax is too extreme.
Some authors seem to think of people’s behavior in a crisis as aberrant, a time when character acts in new and extreme ways. Instead, a climax should be a reflection of the way a character usually behaves when upset, just intensified. Before the climax of your story, you should explore how the character acts when upset, so you have a basis to work off of.
It’s tempting to write climaxes in which characters display extreme emotions like shock and rage, but when a story builds to a climax naturally, these emotions often only play a small role. Characters, for example, who break up after a tumultuous relationship will probably feel exhaustion and frustration as well as anger and hate. A son with an antagonistic relationship towards his mother will likely be annoyed and fed up rather than shocked when she kicks him out of the house.
3) Over reliance on the big dramatic climax!
It’s easy to use a dramatic climax to create conflict and upset, because fighting and yelling is pretty much universally disturbing. But, if the characters are developed fully, the story can create tension by introducing situations that would particularly upset the participants, but may not seem objectively bad. The “moment of reckoning” the story builds up to can be much more subtle.
This tense moment, from my favorite short story “Post and Beam,” a quiet moment of horror and dread rather than a fight. The tension in the scene relies (at least partially) on knowing that the main character is a deeply unhappy woman who distracts from her own bad situation by constantly being concerned for others. We know the woman’s anxiety for her sister is a manifestation of her own misery as she heads towards a breakdown:
My apologies, I’m stuck at my parents’ house for Christmas and don’t have access to the story right now. I’ll put in the quote as soon as I get home. Instead, here’s a summary:
“Lorna worries what might happen to Polly while she is away from her, that she might commit suicide. Lorna imagines a story to happen—how Polly’s body would look, what she would be wearing, “Her long pale legs dangling down, her head twisted fatally on its delicate neck. In front of her body would be the kitchen chair she had climbed onto, and then stepped from, or jumped from, to see how misery could finish itself.” Lorna, an unbeliever, feels the need to pray, “Let it not have happened.” She thinks that there is one thing left to do—make a bargain. She rejects the idea of bargaining the children and thinks she did not love Brendan enough to bargain him, “there is a little hum of hate running along beside her love, nearly all the time.” She thinks she must make the bargain without knowing the terms, promising to honor the bargain even though she does not know what it is.”
….this characterization leads into the climax at the conclusion of the story, in which the main character’s sister (who she views as pitiable) finds happiness in a way the main character cannot. This climax is quietly devastating rather than loud and busy:
If you have a good idea of how exactly the characters would behave towards each other when upset, a subtle, quiet interaction can be more devastating than a loud, busy one.
- Beware of overly passive characters, especially main characters. In order for people to care about a character, the character needs to make decisions that influence others. If your main character’s connection to the plot action involves 1. conveniently being present during the exchange of secret information, 2. being declared a “chosen one,” or 3. watching people close to them die, you might want to think about whether your character is too passive.
- If you write a character with a troubled past, make sure their experiences effect not just their overall life philosophy, but the small ways they interact with others, react to conflict, etc. Authors too often incorporate tragic backstories into stories for plot convenience or added drama, but don’t pay enough attention to past trauma shapes people’s lives.