Thursday, October 28, 2010
Characters - and I mean the ones on the page.
Went to the New Jersey Romance Writers conference last weekend where I got the Golden Leaf Award for my novella The Beast Within from the anthology Highland Beast. That was my third one so I'm now in the Hall of Fame. Very nice. Thank you, New Jersey. Also did a talk on characters. Unfortunately, I was slated for right after Saturday's breakfast and my 45 minutes shrunk to a half hour or less. Didn't get to talk on one part of my ideas on what to do to make your character memorable so thought I'd do it here. Contain your excitement. LOL.
What I didn't get to was something I read in an old article by Jack M. Bickman called the Core of Characterization(Writer's Digest, 11/89) In it he talked about a character's self-concept. That is - what we do in order to be consistant with who and what we think we are. It's our total self-view. It drives people to choose where they live, who they know, and even to pick their goals. Even if people do something that appears contradictory to others, it will make sense to them in terms of their self-concept. That man who rushes into a burning building to save a child might never call himself a hero or even think of himself as such but he has always thought of himself as a man who loves children or even one who will do what has to be done. That man who sees himself as brave could suddenly be confronted by a threat so humongeous that another part of his self-concept kicks in to say - I'm brave all right, but I'm not suicidal.
The thing is that people will know their self-concept, clearly or dimly, and it's actually easily revealed. Most of us will simply blurt it out. A character can actually characterize himself if given a chance. Put a little pressure on him to explain his motives and he'll blurt out his self-concept every time. I'm a man of action. I'm a lady of quality. I'm a CEO. I'm an earl. I'm a mother. I'm an athlete. I'm a writer. I'm too sexy for my shirt.(sorry. Couldn't help myself) So - by defining your character's self-concept you now begin to define his personal setting. A woman who sees herself as powerful and assertive will dress a certain way, drive a certain type of car, even have a certain type of job. A woman who describes herself as a wife and mother will surround herself with things that bolster that image. As you develop the setting to fit your character's self concept the reader will begin to see clues to her basic personality.
So - once you've done that and everything is set up to fit the character's idea of who or what she is - introduce(cue tense movie music here) CHANGE. Put that lovely life and her views of the world under as much pressure as you can. You want something to make her have to struggle to readjust or fight to make her environment fit her self-image again. She'll now pick a goal meant to fix things. People aren't comfortable when their self-concept is messed with and we wouldn't want our characters to be comfortable, would we.
Paranormals are an excellent example of how that can work. You have your nice 21st century cynic who lost all belief in those darling or dangerous fairy-tale characters by the time she was in grade school and then - slap - a vampire, shapeshifter, or some fey character strides into her life and begins to shatter all her preconceived ideas of her little world and endanger her self-concept. You know - the one that says she is a modern rational woman who believes in science and fact. Lots of readjusting needed there. The single soccer mom who suddenly discovers her safe, cozy little suburb is actually crawling with denizons of the dark. Oh, yuh, let's just mess with her head some more.
The upshot is that, if you know what your character's self-concept is, you'll know what her fight should be about, why she's in pain, or even why she's ready to fight. A person out of her element feels pain. Once your story gets that lovely threatening, uncomfortable change all set up, you have to keep your characters motivated by piling on more changes that threaten their self-concepts and keep them miserable.(part of the evil fun of being a writer) Everyone will try to find some way to solve the problem that concurs with her self-concept. That rational woman confronted with a shape-shifter will try to find some rational, scientific explanation to the problems he brings into her life. The most interesting plot developments arise when you confront your character with problems in which her usual methods of operation simply won't work. Even as she tries new things that old self-concept will be very slow to change. Ex.: That big, strong knight who sees himself as a skilled warrior and a man of honor finds himself in a bind where his sword won't help him and he just might have to bruise his extreme rules of honor to get out alive or save the woman he loves.
A character's self-concept provides you with two paths to finding and building that all important inner conflict - 1. when you make the character's environment change, he'll be unhappy and stressed and struggle to right things
-2. A person's self-concept isn't always a reflection of present reality. We love our self-concept so much and cling to it so tightly, we may change without even realizing it. When you confront your character with continuous proof that he's no longer who he kept insisting he was - you have tremendous internal conflict. (yummy)
Such moments of self-seeing are the times of profound character change.(getting tingly just thinking of it.) It may even be that your character hasn't been aware of parts of his self-concept. Until story developments push him into a corner, he never has to call upon those deeper aspects of his self-concept. Here you give your character some important revelations. You can then end by showing the ultimate face-off in which the character either reestablishes the equilibrium between his self-concept and his environmemnt or he fails to do so. Or, play out a final scene in which your (exhausted, emotionally battered) character finally realizes that his self-concept is no longer congruent with reality and he begins to make some livesaving changes in that self-concept. In the first case your character changes the story situation and the environment and harmony is restored. (said single soccer mom and her allies slaughter all the dark denizons in the burbs and plant roses) In the second case - your character is forced to change and begin reestablishing the same kind of harmony with his new self-concept.(said single soccer mom marries the were-tiger and takes self-defense courses)
Once you clearly define your character's self-concept, you're well on your way to knowing exactly how to make that character act consistantly yet with a capacity to surprise. And that's what'll keep the reader glued to the pages.
A bit longer than I thought. Hope you stayed awake until you reached this point.