Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Character Evolution

Lazette Gifford, the site coordinator at Forward Motion for Writers, talks about how one of the key components to writing a novel is character evolution, the changes the character goes through as a result of situations they face. She points out how as the author, we usually know our characters inside and out like they are our own children and we see their evolution in our minds, but do we always show these changes to the reader?

If your character has lived through some life-altering event but doesn’t seem affected or changed by its impact, the reader is going to be jolted out of the story with thoughts of “as if!”. Luckily, how the character reacts is up to us. No two people are alike, and our characters can have many different reactions to the same situation.

If our characters continually respond the same way to the same problem every time, we may not have considered the vast array of potential reactions, and quite possibly will have created predictable, cardboard characters. We don’t want our readers to know exactly what is going to happen next! (Unless of course, we set up this expectation to throw in a little twist, but this needs to be done properly).

Consider how different people react to the same situation; the more dramatic the scenario, the wider the range of responses. Let’s imagine three women, happily married, with 2.5 kids and a house in the ‘burbs, when one day a fire wipes out the entire community, destroying their homes and killing their families. Let’s consider the possible reactions for each of the women:

-joins a religious group in a search for meaning
-becomes a drug addict/alcoholic
-decides to try to help others become better prepared for fire
-attempts to re-create the family she’s lost
-pretends nothing has happened/lives in state of denial
-goes home to parents in an effort to return to simpler stage of life
-creates a ritual and monument for the lost family
-helps other families who have lost their homes
-commits suicide

The possible scenarios are endless that could come from within each of these choices. Does the woman move home with mom and dad, marry her high school sweetheart and become terrified about leaving him home alone? Would her fear eat away at their relationship, causing conflict and eventually lead to the complete erosion of their marriage?

What were the women doing during the fire? Was one in a seedy hotel with her secret lover? Did one just have a fight with her husband over the dishes? Did one forget to tell her children she loved them the last time she saw them?

Each situation gives our characters choices about how they would react. We need to consider what our characters are thinking and why they would react in one way and not another. To make our characters truly come to life for our readers we need to show how they have learned and changed along the way. Because this is the bottom line - if we want readers to come back we need to show them the inner process for the outer reaction. Have you shown this to your readers?


Anita Mae Draper said...

Excellent post, Joanne. You are so right. I think the problem is that many writers don't think that way. I'm saying it from experience in what some of my crit partners have said about Emma's Outlaw.

Because Emma has been kidnapped, I don't seem to be writing enough fear in her character. But I don't want her to feel scared 24 hrs a day. Emma is a woman of faith. I see her as a Joan of Arc character. Joan wouldn't quiver in fear at everything. She trusted God to take care of her.

Yet, I've had CP's mention Emma wouldn't feel blessed by the beauty of the landscape because of her fear.

I dunno... what do you think?

Silver James said...

Excellent post Joanne and something writers should always think about in back of their minds. One of the complaints readers have is that in some books, the characters never grow. They remain stagnate and allow the environment to react to them rather than the other way around.

Anita, as for Emma...since I haven't read the MS, I'm not sure I should truly comment but...when has that ever stopped me, right? ;)

No one lives in fear 24/7 and if they did, who would want to read about them? The character stagnates, as I mentioned above. Emma might be frightened of all sorts of things from sitting down next to a snake or other wild critter to the very real fear her kidnappers might harm her. While the fear would be in the back of her mind, I also see the character finding an inner peace about the situation, enough so that she could marvel about the scenery. God made that part of her world wild and beautiful. He painted the sunsets. He arranged the rainbow after the thunderstorm.

Her acceptance of her situation, her her reliance on her faith, and the inner peace and strength she draws on to get her through each day is, in and of itself, an emotional journey. I believe that's a journey readers will want to make with you. If she simply cowered and all her internal dialogue centered on her fear, I'd get bored in a heartbeat.

That's my two cents worth and in this economy, we all know what that's worth. :D

Joanne Brothwell said...

I'm not sure I should comment either, but I think if I was kidnapped I'd be freaking out a lot! That said, I guess I'd also have moments of calm where I would be able to step out of that state and still appreciate the landscape. That's my two cents.

Silver, I think reading about stagnant characters is quite a chore, so I agree that writers should keep this in mind at all times. Great advice for Anita by the way.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Joanne, I love the way you've explored so many alternatives to this one scenario, and also delving into the extra what-ifs like repercussions for what they did/didn't do right before the fire, and how that might resonate. I really agree that characters need to act, not just how may suit the plot, but according to their own personal motivations. It's something I've been thinking about a lot as I work through a bit of a hairy section of the WIP, alongside arbitrary artifice propelling characters in convenient directions.

The other thing with my WIP is trying to take in so many different things effecting the same character. It's hard to figure which aspect of the character is influencing the inner process towards a decision sometimes, when it might be one of many things backstory/plot/character/romance/antagonist related. Ah well, I try and try again, and hopefully it will all ring true.. or true enough for an editor with much more experience to help me with the last bits and pieces.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Anita, like Silver I can't really speak about your MS beyond what you've shared on the blog... but of course I always have an opinion :)

I agree, Emma shouldn't just be scared 24 hours a day. It would be boring, it would lack growth. I think in a situation like this it might be helpful to you to reference the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance). This isn't grief, but it's a pretty shattering experience, and I think those sort of coping mechanisms are part of human nature, built into almost everything we do.

In Emma's case, I could see it all as different manifestations of fear.. refusal to acknowledge what's happening, getting upset rather than breaking down (anger at herself, her captors, or with God, perhaps), etc, etc, eventually leading to acceptance of the situation. This could go on small scales too. Within a day or so, she'd probably realize there's no bargaining out of this, and being scared and upset won't help (at which point there'd probably be some depression) and then she'd come to acceptance. This might last until the next plunge in the action, which renews her terror and sets her back into fear and the cycle. Each experience grows on the next, and eventually she'd be able to rise above it all, embrace acceptance (and a will to change her fate, perhaps) and faith in God, and rise out of the climax at the end.

I don't know if any of this lines up with what you're dealing with, but hopefully it illustrates what I mean. I don't think Emma's mood would be consistent, nor would it be steadily improving. I think there would be times she'd take in the majesty of the landscapes around her, and perhaps those glimpses of the divine help pull her out of despair toward that acceptance stage. Other times, she may just not care two licks about the colour of the hills if there's sand in her eyes.

Joanne Brothwell said...

Hayley, I think as long as you have all of those variables in mind as you are considering how your character should react - that is the critical piece.

Then when you finally make the decision about how your character will respond, it will most likely ring true because it has been so well thought out.

I have no doubt you will pull it off!

Janet said...

Sorry, I'm late today Joanne - but I read the post over on your personal blog first thing this morning and then never got over here to comment!

Great post - certainly one everyone should bookmark and come back to when revising (on that characterization pass through). I love that you've given in-depth examples and have taken them to both pre and post inciting incident. Very important in creating well rounded, believable characters.

Anita - good luck. I won't comment because everyone did such a great job. But I will say this - in stressful situations, I take time and purposefully seek out beauty in order to calm myself. In that, I find hope and peace.

Joanne Brothwell said...

Thanks Janet,
I think I could learn a little something from your strategy to find calm. I could definitely use a little hope and peace some days! ;)

Anita Mae Draper said...

I'd like to thank you all for taking the time to address Emma's character growth. You've brought up things I had thought of but didn't have a name for, and you've mentioned things I hadn't considered. Definitely food for thought.

Joanne, I feel like I've taken over your post today. Sorry about that. But I'm thrilled with the response and I thank you for giving me a chance to work on Emma's characterization.

You're all a great bunch of writers to know and work with. Thanks again.


Nayuleska said...

The posts here seem to be perfeect timing with my wip.

The other day as I drove home from work I had a total eureka moment. I wanted to start a mexican wave at the traffic light, but didn't :)

I was letting my Muse chat to me, and she said 'well if characters a, b, c & d had this scenario, how would they react?'

I managed to give a different reaction for each of them, based on who they were and what their personalities were like.

This is linked to evolution because how they react at the beginning of the book, would, in a few cases, be completely different to how they would react by the end. Situations make our characters grow. Although sometimes showing the growth instead of saying (I wouldn't do this) 'Character a has grown stronger'.