Post Date: December 30th, 2011
A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson
Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
— Albert Einstein
We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.
— Albert Einstein
Ever looked pityingly upon a fellow human and thought, “Oh, you’re so pathetic”? This person might be one who plays the victim; one who willingly lies down like a doormat; a person who runs his car into the same ditch again and again and when stuck in a rut, cries up to you for help, saying, “Why me?”
The problems and the response of these individuals forever remain the same. The complaints always strike the same chord. The response you have is also the same: you wanna shake ’em.
(Of course I would never behave that way, we think. The mote in someone else’s eye is so much more compelling to spot.)
But the pathetic behavior of human beings–our tendency to keep knocking our heads against the same door–is a lesson about what we ought NOT to write and why we drop certain books. As my agent has coached me, we don’t want to hear about Wendy’s woes for too much of the book before we see her take action. Having just seen Lisbeth Salander kick a– and take names in THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, I’ve taken a few notes about powerful characters and why we need catalyst behavior in our stories.
Here are some tips for kick-starting your characters into New Year’s resolutions of new behavior. Get them off their I’m-such-a-sorry-soul track and into action that forces them out of their consistency, their comfort zone:
- Write a chapter that ends on a cliffhanger and forces your character to choose Door A or Door B. Originally, I thought HOW WENDY REDBIRD DANCING SURVIVED THE DARK AGES OF NOUGHT would be a wovel (web novel) where I’d enlist readers help, giving the readers the vote of Door A or Door B? at the end of every chapter. That forced me to write a compelling first 50 pages, where each chapter ended at a crucial point in the action–either a defining moment, where the reader must digest something big, or a cliffhanger, a moment where the reader says, “Hmm, just a few pages more.”
- Have your character encounter a person who is a foil–opposite in thought, action, family background, speech–and makes your character highly uncomfortable. In my novel, Wendy runs into two foils within the first 20 pages: her sworn enemy since seventh grade, the local Paris Hilton popular girl, and an evangelical Christian/BMOC, the school’s quarterback. The differences between Wendy and these two are great enough that sparks automatically fly.
- Make a list of your characters’ intellectual and emotional traits and color code them by theme. For me, I could list the following characteristics for Wendy: gifted, highly verbal, analytical, argumentative, and all of those I might color blue. Another set of her characteristics are shy, defensive, suspicious–color those yellow. Then there is her angry and rageful side; there’s the sad and suicidal; there are the traits of creativity and her passion for research and writing. Red, green. I now have a rainbow. Does the plot of your story test every color in your characters’ rainbow?
- Make a list of heart-clutching moments that can turn your character’s comfort zone upside down. In “How to Make Your Novel a Page-Turner,” Writer’s Digest author Elizabeth Sims gives some fantastic advice to keep the reader engaged, awake, and caring. She advises that your protagonist must survive tests of heart-clutching trials. You might want to print her list and keep it near your computer).
I’m not saying great art can’t be about the pathetic, dithering, wondering, worried, and paralyzed folk. Doesn’t Holden whine and wander for much of Catcher? Doesn’t Emma pound her head against a wall with well-intentioned but mistaken match-making in Jane Austen’s tale? Doesn’t Hamlet have a bit of trouble taking action? Doesn’t Lily Bart fall from grace for the entirety of The House of Mirth (and so very gracefully)? But what’s interesting about these stories is that we a) like the characters, b) believe the characters are doing the best they can, and c) enjoy watching them get into all kinds of scrapes avoiding the truth they refuse to see. It also helps that these authors (Salinger, Austen, Shakespeare, Wharton) were masters of scene and summary, style and image. If we can bring all that to the page, by all means, let your characters sit tight in the same spot for a few more scenes!
There’s also a distinct artistic choice to catalog the repetitive trials a pathetic, dis-likeable soul for many pages for the sheer art of all of the above–but frankly, I can only handle it with Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” A poem can contain just the right dose of pathetic, and then my tastes lean toward active heroes for the long haul of a novel.
In everyday life, pathetic behavior is understandable. After all, society often demands conformity. The road not taken is not what the neighbors and in-laws and family advise. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t alarm the neighbors. Color inside the lines!
But that’s everyday life and many of us don’t want to read about that. Gimme a break; gimme a hero, dark or otherwise. Iago and Lady Macbeth and Ewell might leave rack and ruin behind them, but by God, they did something before they died. Meanwhile, the Othellos and Macduffs and Atticuses left the world better than they found it. And it was fascinating to watch.
- When are you most pathetic? Why? Write the stream-of-consciousness of your pathetic thoughts and paralyzed behaviors, letting someone enter inside your head in these moments.
- Look at Elizabeth Sims’ list of heart-clutching moments for characters. In what situation have you found yourself in your life? Write that scene from memory with all the sensory detail you can muster.
- Now rewrite that scene with a different beginning, middle, or end. Write it the way you wish things had gone; write it with you having different character traits or responses in the moment.
- Write about someone who is your foil and how this person brings out the best or worst in you.
- What are your least desirable traits of character? Your most admirable? In what situations have you seen both emerge? Write parallel scenes from your life where different sides of your character have been most evident.
- Can your protagonist be accused of being pathetic? When? Why? If you can’t see it, ask yourself where your character takes a new, significant action in the novel that he or she normally would not take. Now count the number of pages from page 1 where this action occurs. If you’re over 50 pages, go back and write a catalyst scene where your character is forced to do something seemingly “out of character” but required by the heart-clutching moment.
- Find your favorite novel and pinpoint chapter ends that insist on page turns. See Sims’ list (the section titled, End Chapters with a Bang), and categorize the craft at work at the end of these scenes. Now turn to an end of one of your chapters–or all chapters in the first 50 pages of your novel–and see if your chapters accomplish the same thing.
- What is the most appealing and least desirable characteristic your protagonist has? Have you let your protagonist show both those characteristics? Where? How? If not, write a scene where both traits emerge.