Sunday, March 9, 2014

Characters Are People, and People Are…

…not always appealing or intriguing. Perhaps your neighbor is intelligent, financially comfortable, and in good health, yet constantly disappointed. The weather’s always wrong. Taxes are high, jokes dumb, spirituality hollow, and politics? Don’t even start.

If Eileen’s your neighbor, what can you do? Have something on the stove? But if Eileen’s a character, you might not buy or finish the book she’s in. Eileen may be realistic, but real-life versions of her are annoying enough. Who wants to follow a character like that?

You might argue that everyone knows Eileen. Besides, by the end of the novel she grows up—quits being so disappointed and hard on herself and everyone else. Still, realistic isn’t necessarily appealing. More seriously, people change because circumstances bring out their best. But people can change only so much, just like a zebra can’t grow a giraffe’s neck just because drought destroys all the foliage below the canopy.

Tip: The potential for growth must exist in your protagonist right from the start.

That serves two purposes. First off, even in your opening lines, readers will know that Eileen whines a lot, but there’s more to her. That rouses curiosity. What will she learn—and how? Secondly, when Eileen finally performs some heroic act at your novel’s end, no one will say, “She’d never do that. I don’t believe it for a second.”

How can you make your protagonist more appealing while plotting your plot?

  • Identify your protagonist’s hidden strength. Right on the first page, find a way to make this strength visible but never obvious.
  • Decide how your protagonist’s hidden strength will assist or save at least two people.
  • Give your protagonist a flaw or weakness that will undermine the hidden strength.
  • Foreshadow a fear that will obstruct your protagonist’s progress toward morality, maturity, or both.
  • Shape circumstances so the hidden strength can triumph over weakness and fear.
  • Determine the climax for your protagonist’s arc. What’s the high point of whatever will change about your protagonist, and how does that hidden strength produce victory?
  • List at least five life-changing events that thrust the protagonist toward the climax. The last one of these must force to protagonist to conquer that weakness and fear—magnificently.

But take any irritating version of the real “Eileen” out of your novel, unless she’s there for gentle comic relief. And give the real Eileen a cup of coffee. Maybe she has a hidden strength after all. Even if finding it won’t help your novel (and it might), it could certainly help her.

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