Once your character is born, she begins her journey into the story. To follow her on the trek we need use the pieces of physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual knowledge she shows us to understand her motivation and to learn how she reacts to the story. Our story events should be realistic and unpredictable. She will reveal her character as she lives through them.
When my primary character Michael Archer began walking through the pages of Journey to Riverbend, I thought I knew him. He responded to each event as I expected him to. Until he met the town bully, Mark Carstairs. In their first confrontation, Mark accosted Rachel Stone on her job as a waitress. With a swift move, Michael swept Mark’s chair from under him, and the bully landed flat on his back.
In their second confrontation, Michael unceremoniously lifted Mark off his feet and tossed him in the street.
None of my prep work showed this. The events revealed one of Michael’s core values—protecting women from abuse no matter the risk to him.
If I had stuck with the character, I built using the tools and methods I described in my earlier post, I would have missed this and the dramatic turn my story took for the better.
I needed to give Michael room to breathe, react, and respond to events. He needed to show his character in action. I needed to see it. I didn’t throw out my pre-writing character building, but I let Michael expand on that work to reveal a more complex person.
With the female protagonist of the Riverbend series, Rachel Stone, I used a different technique—I interviewed her. As the story move toward publication, the publisher and my editor thought she wasn’t deep enough. They described her as the cliched prostitute with a heart of gold. My character-building tools weren’t helping me get a better picture of her. So, I interviewed her.
At one point, I expressed my frustration and said, “Rachel, I don’t get it. What do you want?”
She rolled her eyes and made that noise women make when we men exasperate them—a combination of a sigh and a harumph. She said, “Don’t you get it? Haven’t you read the book?”
That sentence opened my eyes to what I was missing. First, I realized I was arguing with someone who didn’t exist except in the pages of the book. And I was fine with that. Second, her attitude and words revealed her feisty spirit and her drive for independence. Her deepest value came forth—no man was ever going to control her again.
When I build characters and interview them, there is one important question: I need to know what their goals are. More importantly, I ask why they want this goal. It could be a memory or trauma from their past. It could be the threat of losing something or someone in the present.
In Rachel’s case, it was the threat of losing herself. It wasn’t important for me to know this ahead of time. In fact, for me, it was better for the story if Rachel revealed it naturally through her thoughts and actions.
The victories and challenges a character faces in the story prevents them from becoming stick figures. They become real people with deep emotions and desires. They grow and change over the course of the story.
We don’t want readers to read about our characters, we want them to experience their lives in the pages of our stories.
How has a character surprised you in a story?