Thursday, October 6, 2016

Keeping Characters in Line

Charlotte Firbank-King

I was asked to write about how characters in novels change as they face adversity—how some will rise to the occasion and others will crumble. Easy, right? I mean, it’s your novel. You call the shots and decide your character’s personality. You say who does what. You say when, you say how. Right?

Well, maybe not so much.

At least, not for me. Almost every character I’ve created refuses to behave the way I intended. Why?


I like strong heroines. Ergo, my latest historical story has a woman who is a feisty and determined photographer. By the fourth chapter, she’s seriously irritating me. Determined is one thing, but downright daft is another. I go back and try to change the parts where she gets stupid and pig-headed. But does she listen? No! She gets worse. She hies off into Africa with a servant girl and no idea of how to do anything, let alone cook or fire a gun. The hero sort of toes the line, but he crumples when it comes to dealing with the heroine. I can’t believe this nice guy actually falls for, then marries, this harridan before she takes off in a huff to do what she wants, going against his experienced advice.

The bottom line is, characters take on a life of their own. So I can’t tell anyone how a character will behave in the face of adversity, because my characters constantly surprise me. I think they may behave one way, but when it gets right down to it, they may do the opposite. Or something else unexpected.

HOWEVER, it’s also important to make sure your character fits the role for the story you need to tell. Otherwise, you may need to “fire” that character and start over with another one. Or change the story to fit the character—it’s up to you. Writers often impose their personal reactions on their characters. Don’t do it! If you create a character who is, say, a warrior or seasoned cop, chances are he or she won’t cry easily, throw up at the sight of blood, or be fazed by the sight of a dead person. Even though we’re told it’s better to weave a novel around what we know, we often have other stories in our heads. So, go with it—just be prepared to put in a lot of research.

We no longer live in the Stone Age where every day was a fight for survival. Not many modern, normal folks have seen a dead body or a person bleeding to death, or have run into a burning building, so it’s hard to bring to life what you haven’t experienced. This is not to say you need to go out and off some poor sod or go to the morgue to see a dead person—although this last one would help. Nor do you need to cut your arm to shreds to see what blood feels or smells like. But you can interview people who’ve experienced things like this. You can read “true life” stories about such people. And you can think what they had to go through to become who they are—and then make sure your character fits that role. I’ve edited cop novels with not a single swear word—and I know from personal experience that cops can turn the air blue with foul language. You don’t have to make the character cuss every second word, but it does need to capture the essence of how they would speak. Get inventive—and not by having “#@&*** this.”

You could have a gentle character who has lived a soft life. Then he’s thrust into a traumatic situation. It is here that you can make or break the character. If the character wilts and does nothing, then you’ve just killed the story—unless you bring in another character willing to do what the wimp can’t do. But then the wimp isn’t the hero—which can cause serious problems in plotting. Remember, for a story to be satisfying, characters must rise up to the occasion. If you need examples of that, all you have to do is watch the news to see what ordinary people are capable of in dire situations.

About two years ago, I wrote a medieval story where the antagonist was a cruel woman with horrible sexual preferences. I found the character extremely difficult to write—mostly because I’d never experienced the things she did, although I had read and heard about it. In addition to a lot of research, writers need to be brave when writing about something they haven’t experienced. Characters, like real people, will expose themselves during traumatic situations. The important thing is to make sure the characters are true to who they are.

Which, unfortunately, means you have to let them take on a life of their own and tell YOU who they are—even if this means you must change the plot to accommodate them. 

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