Monday, October 1, 2012

Taking Characters on a Voyage of Self-Discovery

by Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraig
3714323388_4dddf59ea0I read in the Charlotte Observer recently that there was a new radio station in town…an oldies station.  I was glad to hear the news—I remember thinking that there wasn’t really a station that played Motown or the Beatles. 

The next time I got in the car, I turned on the radio and turned to the station I’d read about.

I frowned.  “That’s strange,” I said to my son.  “There’s supposed to be an oldies station here.  But they’re playing Prince.”

I glanced over and saw my teen son’s face go carefully, cautiously, diplomatically blank.  I kept changing the dial ever so slightly, listening for the Supremes or Otis Redding or the Beach Boys.

Then I realized it. The station that was playing Prince was the oldies station.  I’d thought an oldies station would play music from when my parents were in high school…but it was playing music from when I was in high school. 


Just like my son let me figure out on my own that 41 year olds aren't spring chickens, sometimes it’s helpful for us to let characters figure things out for themselves.  When should characters realize they’re not able to save the world?  Or be the perfect parent?  Or that they have anger management issues?  Or a drinking problem? Or that they’re getting old? :)

One way to prompt the character into introspection is by having the character react to a life event.  The event (end of a marriage/relationship, loss of a job, fatal car accident the protagonist walks away from) could make the character reflect on his part in the failure and new awareness of his own shortcomings.

In my books (mysteries), sometimes the characters don’t ever have that epiphany. Instead, they end up murdering another character, or become a murder victim, themselves.

Another way to get a protagonist to reach that moment of self-discovery/awareness is to have another character point out the protagonist's flaw. This can be tricky, though, just like it is in real life.  It can make for great conflict.

If another character offers insight into some truth about the protagonist, it offers an opportunity for character development.  Does the protagonist get defensive?  Analytical? Does he agree or disagree?  Does he storm off?  Is he hurt?  How does it affect the relationship between the two characters?

Something else to consider is the reader.  When should you time this moment of introspection for the protagonist (if it’s a secondary character, I don’t think it’s quite as big of a question)?  When will the reader get tired of the fact that the protagonist just doesn’t get it?  When would you, as a reader, get frustrated that the protagonist is stuck in a cycle, for instance?

Those are the ways that I’ve come up with to make characters come to grips with their own shortcomings (reacting to an event or having another character force them into thinking about it.)  Have you got any other ideas?  What have you used in your books?

Photo: Flickr—Elkit