Deep POV: Confessions of a Christian Writer

The ramblings of an emergent-realistic-edgy-working-for-God-and-the-pay-isn’t-that-great-sometimes-confused-christian-fiction writer (uh, that would be me).

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Authentic Characters

"Art can only be Art by presenting an adequate outward symbol of some fact of the interior life." Margaret Fuller Posted by Picasa

Characters are at the core of what we do as writers. We can't simply prop up newly cut out people and walk them around the stage like children do with paper dolls. No, it's so much more than that. As Robert McKee said in his book Story, "...we explore the inscape of human nature, expressed in poetic code." We create characters who (as McKee also says) become metaphors for humanity. As we study and learn about them, they become so real to us it seems impossible that they could be mere figments of our imagination. The challenge, though, is taking what we know about them, and making them come alive to our readers. Not an easy task.

One trick in presenting the "outward symbol" is to put the character into a situation that tests his mettle. I've seen too many writers placidly walking their characters through chapters where nothing happens. They begin at Point A and end up at Point A1. Where is the challenge to the character? Without such a challenge, he doesn't have a chance to express his inward self, nor does that self have a change to grow. Conflict is at the heart of every bit of writing we do, and without it, our characters live their lives in "quiet desperation," never quite achieving whatever greatness might come to them were they required to face down a dragon, stand up to an abusive spouse, or ask for a raise from a recalcitrant boss.

Another tool of the craft, which is proffered so often many writers groan when they hear the phrase is, yes, show don't tell. The truth is, there's so much more to that advice than a character who bangs her fist on the table rather than the author using an expression like, "She was angry." That's elemental. The giants in the business do much more. You might, for instance, find a certain inconsistency in a first-person account of the protagonist's life. Hmm, she says this here, but then over here she's saying something quite different. What does that mean? Is she a liar or is she lying to herself? Is she a scatterbrain or very shrewd? Plus, whether it's first- or third-person, a good writer builds up a body of knowledge about the character within the pages of her story. You don't have to be told certain things when they happen because you already know how devastating they'll be to that character. That's showing at it's finest.

And finally, as you write, be authentic within yourself. Look at your own emotions and don't be afraid to follow the less desirable ones down some dark hallways. Life is not all sunny brightness and sometimes, even by the grace of God, people continue to struggle when every expectation is that they'd thrive. Examine your similar feelings even though the circumstances might be very different, and let your characters struggle with, or even embrace, such feelings. People are complex and their reactions in a given situation should be no less so. Deal with your own complexities and allow them in your characters. Your readers will recognize the authenticity of your characters if you provide them with the honesty of yourself.