Ruth E. Walker
Last week, we looked at underwriting in fiction and focused on underwritten scenes. Scenes are the building blocks of any story and essential for developing forward progression.
As a refresher, if a scene is underwritten, it lacks at least one of three important qualities: a reader’s connection to emotions, sensations and, ultimately, the story.
Most scenes involve the actions and reactions of a story’s characters. And it is here–in how a writer treats character development–that the beating heart of a story is found. Story is what we long for but it is character that embodies that story and leads us through to the end.
More than once, I’ve worked on novels that have underwritten important elements of character development:
- physical presence (external = movement & abilities)
- moral centre (internal = reactions & decisions)
- wants and needs (external vs internal = motivations & goals)
When any one of these is underwritten, writers risk losing vital connections to readers.
The body is alive
The physical presence of your character is much more than describing how they look. How they move is based on their physical capabilities: strengths and weaknesses. And those strengths and weaknesses will change depending on their circumstances.
Big, tall Deshawn has to rescue a buddy trapped in a haunted house. We know he’s afraid of the dark.
Below are three different ways of sharing physical information about Deshawn, from a passive “tell” narrative, to a more active and physically connected narrative, and then finally a physically and emotionally active approach. Consider all three and decide which one is easiest to visualize and believe in the action.
- Deshawn is a tall man. The room beyond the doorway he passes through is dark and frightening.
- Deshawn stoops to pass through the doorway and looks around the frightening dark room beyond.
- Deshawn tucks in his shoulders and lowers his head to pass into the room, his eyes wide and searching for any flicker of movement in the dark.
Unless they’re in a coma, your characters will always have to move their bodies. Those bodies need to act and react as any other body would. They feel the cold. Muscles get tired. Armpits sweat. Stomachs rumble. Eyes strain. Goose bumps appear.
Overwriting would be to have all those physical actions happening at the same time. But underwriting is to not have any of them ever happen to your characters. Using the senses — taste, touch, sound, smell and sight — will help keep readers physically connected to the people in your stories.
Good vs evil vs a little of both
Morality (beliefs, values, principles) is part of what drives your character’s actions and reactions. Characters make choices and firm decisions based on their moral centre. Underwriting happens when writers either don’t know what their character believes in or doesn’t give characters an opportunity to act on or challenge that belief system.
In Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, we gain insight into the moral centre of Aunt Lydia. A disturbing and evil antagonist in the first book, we discover that she is far more complex. We learn about her life before the extreme right-wing, Christian theocracy takes over part of the United States. If she opted to cling to her values and principles, she would be executed. She chooses life and must suppress her moral centre until she finds her way back to embrace it once more.
While I’m not suggesting that all your characters must have deep-seated values and principles, you will create well-rounded, logical and engaging characters if they act within some kind of moral centre. They won’t be underwritten because their actions and reactions will be logical, consistent and recognizable. And just like Atwood’s Aunt Lydia, there is plenty of room to play with the range of morality from which they operate.
Motivation and goals
Just as characters act from a moral centre, what they want and why they want it forms another part of what drives them and the narrative forward. You risk underwriting your character when goals don’t appear until halfway through the novel. Worse yet, if a character has no goal, they have no reason for motivation. And why will a reader worry about their failures and cheer their successes?
A character’s motivation can change, as can goals. What a character wants at the beginning of any story is rarely what a character needs. In terms of plot, readers want to follow an interesting or intriguing story. They don’t want an aimless meandering stroll through narrative that eventually gives them the ah-ha moment. “Oh, her mother’s disappearance is why she won’t commit to any relationship. Would have been good to get a hint of that long before page 107.”
There are plenty of ways to add a brushstroke or two before page 107. Figurative language is one method: metaphor and symbolism, for example.
- a character’s attachment to a mother figure — a Madonna icon, an activist role for “Mother Earth” OR the reverse — disgust of sacred “mother” icons, a pro-development role that dismisses “tree huggers,” etc.
- what your character refuses to see — photo album with mom’s pictures removed, flipped over or folded to hide her image. (There’s no need to explain the reason at this point — on page 107, it will support the ah-ha moment that makes the reveal be logical)
- a character serving in caregiver (mother) role — a house plant, a pet, a neighbour’s child — and not doing it well at all, gives you lots of room to play: a missing neighbour’s pet — that you lost — is not the same as a missing neighbour’s child — who you were babysitting
In the process of editing, revising, rewriting and second-guessing ourselves, it’s easy enough to pare out elements of character development. A simple method to uncover underwriting for characters is to ask yourself the following:
- Is this character physically present, using their senses, filling their space, moving appropriately?
- Is this character acting in concert with their beliefs and principles? And if not, is there a reason?
- Does this character know what they want? Are they working towards it and, if not, why not?
- And, as the author, do I know what they need? And am I moving them (or the plot) towards that?
Tip of the character iceberg
And this is just the start. Characters, like real human beings, are amazingly complex and this blog is really just touching the surface. There are many good books that explore character and how to enrich yours. The more you know your character and how they should be acting and reacting, the less underwritten your characters will be.