Characters

We’re often told by writing teachers that a character has to want something. The more organic teacher tells us this is related to something they need.

I hardly ever know what my character wants as a story begins to fall on the page. I listen to the things they want to tell, and from that I begin to sense the whole person. The second piece of this advice feels right to me, and I think it’s true of all of us, what we want is indicative of something we need.

In Jake’s case he wants a bicycle. That wasn’t much of a hint. But then I began to see that it represented something his deceased father had enjoyed, not just a bike ride, but a kind of freedom. He has a wonderful supportive female family, and he needs a little breathing space. That’s what that bicycle represents.

I worried about this a little at first. I think it’s not enough to want something. I think the character has to want something with a kind of desperation. This can’t be the kid who wants one more video game but must be the kid who WANTS something. It isn’t clear to him what this means. He isn’t thinking about filling a deeper need for autonomy. And he doesn’t care. He has his gaze fixed on the nearer landscape, which is the frame for a bike.

But as the story went on, I felt the story delivered, quietly, what he truly needed: a relationship with his grandfather, who as it happened was the childhood memory he had mistaken for his father.

Sometimes, it’s possible to find your way through character developments like these by asking yourself why they act like they do. I did this with Casey, in Say Yes, partly because I wrote to understand her motivation, and partly because this character was one that didn’t care to talk. I’d never met a character like that before.

I kept asking, why is she acting like this? Why does she want to hurt Sylvia, who seems pretty harmless? Why is it now so important to keep Sylvia’s huge mistake an even bigger secret? Why does Casey even care? As it turned out, this was a pretty decent strategy.

It kept me focused on a goal of sorts, discovering what her ultimate goal was. And it forced me to demonstrate or otherwise communicate her reason why, so that when she does the unthinkable, the reader didn’t doubt her. Motives are possibly the most important aspect of characterization. He or she can do anything as long as the reader understands why.

The best demonstration of why, is, of course, cause and effect. We see the pressure mounting, and when the lid blows, we saw it coming.

Cause and effect takes a little practice. I like to take a moment in which I’ve observed something kind of irritating and, once I’m sitting with pen and paper, blow it all out of proportion. Think of something along those lines, the person who butted in front of you in the grocery line, that’s one of my favorites. Think of at least six highly inappropriate responses to this offense. Don’t just blow the place up all at once. Try reasoning with the offender first, and let them be as obnoxious as you care to go for. Let them be unexpected–the tiny little old lady with several sets of teeth, like the co-star of Aliens. Take that, Sigourney Weaver.