Friday, September 13, 2019

Are Your Characters Too Nice, Controlled, Predictable? Here's How to Bring Out the Tension and Make Them Vivid (But Still Not Serial Killers)

Annie, one of my readers, got surprising feedback from her writer's group.  One of her novel's characters, an abused woman trying to escape from controlling relationships (with parents and boyfriend) was unbelievable.  Her sadness and desperation to escape wasn't enough to make her vivid, memorable, engaging to readers.  Where was her strength, her resolution?

Problem is, Annie says, an abused person often lacks this kind of drive.  So what could she do to create more tension around this character, making her vivid and believable in her search to become her own person?

I remember reading Wally Lamb's novel, She's Come Undone.  It's a huge book and demands stamina from the reader, or so I remember.  I also recall nearly tossing it in the trash about two-thirds through, because the character was such a terrible victim.  For too long.  As a reader, I wanted to see some inner spark in this person, some hint that she'd win in the end--not in a Hallmark movie kind of way, but in a way I could buy, given her desperate circumstances.  In truth, I was bored with her.

In real life, people are desperate.  They also suffer chronic illnesses, terrible abuse, and other trauma.  But on the page, anything that goes on too long without redemption or even change can derail a reader.  Literature is not real life; writers of abuse stories must search out the nuggets in the character's history that create a pathway to change--of some kind.  Or worse circumstances and greater tragedy, which is equally compelling.  

In other words, there has to be an arc.  A sense of movement.  Exterior as well as interior.

I haven't read Annie's pages, but I'm going to throw out a guess, based on my own experience with writing this kind of character.  Too much is internalized.  Not enough is externalized.  

If Annie's character suffers inwardly, via sadness and desperation, what would in her outer life would reflect that?  Then, as she decides to change, what small steps would reflect that as well?  Maybe one day she gets dressed.  Another day she helps someone in an unexpected way.  Or she falls in love with a child in the playground and goes there every afternoon to watch (not in a stalker kind of way, just as a mirror for her yearning for something to love).  It doesn't usually take much to signify change to a reader.  And we humans usually change in small, tangible outer steps.  That accumulate, so when the dramatic final change happens, we believe it.  It's earned.

When I'm faced with this kind of dilemma in one of my characters--for my latest novel, Outlaws, it was the dilemma of one character being injured and hiding out for ten days, a boring possibility at first that I had to work hard to make interesting--I often read other novelists to learn how they do it.  I respect Mr. Lamb, but he's not one I choose.  Alice Munro is.  She's a master at showing small, external changes in character that reveal astonishing depths by the end of the story.

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