Sunday, May 31, 2015

Character and Coincidence

Heraclitus said that “Character is fate”; who you are determines what happens to you. If only it were so! The people who fill collection boxes or steal the bills in them would each get what’s coming to them. They don’t. But your characters should.

Tip: A huge part of fiction is good guys finishing first. And bad guys finishing punished.

Yet it’s tricky to make character drive character. How do you reveal that decisions and actions at least influence fate, if not overtly causing it?

Questions drive actions, and questions can drive character motive and behavior.

~ Does luck play a role in character victory or failure?

Randomness is the state of the world, but people can read newspapers or history books for that. Novel readers enjoy reaching the end and being able to trace exactly what determined that ending.

~ Do you subject your characters to dilemma?

There’s no better way to discover what a woman’s made of than asking her to choose between her art and the woman, man, or child she loves. Her decision says everything about who she is. Don’t baby your characters! Make them suffer.

~ Are your characters ironically consistent and inconsistent?

People settle into certain habits— exercising daily or never; working constantly or studying TV like an art form; hating cats or orchids or letting them take over. Yet smokers suddenly quit. Family suddenly replaces frenzied job commitment. In real life, the motive might seem inexplicable. Don’t let that happen in your novel.

~ Are your characters resolute?

At least on paper, the people we admire desire passionately, risk impulsively, and enjoy or despise intensely. That’s another way of saying that they love life and we love watching them love life. Create characters who put everything on the line. They know they might lose, but they’ll never lose for lack of trying.

~ Are your characters flexible?

Heroes adapt. They don’t just keep doing what they did yesterday and a thousand yesterdays before. They don’t just cross their fingers or wish on stars. They use their brains, muscles, and courage to affect the outcome. And how we love them for that.

The world’s certainly unjust enough, and coincidence isn’t particularly interesting. Readers expect novels to supply the causality and credibility that insures a just ending. Why not show how characters achieve the sadness or triumph they deserve.

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