Welcome to another Expanded Universe column where I feature essays from authors and editors of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, as well as from established readers and reviewers. My guest today is Sarah Gailey. Gailey is a Bay Area native and an unabashed bibliophile, living and working in beautiful Oakland, California. She enjoys painting, baking, vulgar embroidery, and writing stories about murder and monsters. She livetweeted Star Wars and the internet got very excited about it, but mostly she writes short SFF and horror. Her fiction has appeared in Mothership Zeta and The Colored Lens, and is pending publication in lots of other places. You can find links to her work at her website. She tweets @gaileyfrey. Today she’s sharing Part 2 of her 3 part series on character-driven narrative. In case you missed it, here is Part 1.
I’m back with part 2 of a 3-part series on character-driven narrative and character development as worldbuilding! If you didn’t already read part 1, go do so now, otherwise this won’t make any sense at all (it’s okay, I’ll wait here until you’re done).
You’re back? Okay, great, let’s jump right in and discuss how to provide your character with the depth they need to carry the story on their own! You’ll recall that step one was making your character real — giving them a name and a life and generally just accepting that they’re not there for you to boss around. Our character is Betsy: woman, middle-aged, in a failing marriage, gonna have an affair. So, we’ve Made the Character Real. Now it’s time to start giving the character weight and depth.
This is an important step in stage acting, too: figuring out what your character wants. Stereotypical method actors are always pestering their director for their motivation because motivation drives action. Purpose drives behavior. When identifying motivation, shoot for a positive desire — instead of “I don’t want,” our cuckolding dame’s motivation will be “I want.” So what does she want?
For our purposes here, I’m going to decide on her motivation (you can pick next time): she wants to feel a sense of uncertainty. She wants to feel adrenaline. I don’t like to directly say these things in my writing. Instead, I like to show-not-tell by letting the motivation drive the action.
How will Betsy’s motivation impact her actions? Let’s find out. An easy way to test this is to give her a choice between two dudes: a polo-shirted investment-banker-type, and… how about that gentleman in the dark, smoky corner of the bar, with the scar over one eye and the big hunting knife strapped to his belt? They’ll do nicely for Betsy’s choice. Keep them in mind as we move to the next step…
Who are your characters to each other? How does your character see the other people around her? To our lady protagonist, her husband (we’ll call him… Tod) isn’t just a husband. That’s not how relationships work – nobody is just one single thing to anybody. We’re all parfaits. We all have layers.
So, Tod. Maybe Tod reminds Betsy of her dad a little, and that’s why she was initially attracted to him. Maybe he represents safety, stability. Stagnancy. He was once her best friend, and now he’s not, but she still has to see him every day. So that’s Tod. No wonder she’s over it.
What about Polo Shirt? He’s safe, probably adequate in bed. He’s not her husband. He’s offering to pay for her drink, so he’s clearly interested. Betsy looks at him, and she sees a path she’s travelled many times.
Finally, who’s the bad boy in the corner with the scar and the knife? Who is he to Betsy? Here’s what I think: I think Betsy looks at him, and she sees that guy who she sat next to in tenth-grade chemistry, who doodled in the textbooks and smelled like cigarette smoke. That guy was kind of hot… but her father never would have approved of him, so she never made a move.
So, we’ve identified who these men are to Betsy. We know her motivations. Who is she going to go for? I’m thinking it’s Scar Knife. Sorry, Polo Shirt. You lose this time.
One more note on relationships: it’s really, really important to consider your relationship to your character. This is important in theatre, and it’s important in writing too: you have to sympathize with your character. Even if you don’t agree with your choices. I would go so far as to say you should sympathize with your character especially if you don’t agree with their choices. If you don’t, you’ll struggle to write them; they’ll come out as one-dimensional. Sympathy means understanding their emotional world — understanding what they’re going through. So, we can’t be writing Betsy and thinking “what a cold-hearted bitch, cheating on her husband.” Instead, we’ve got to be able to think “man, Betsy really got married too young and has been slowly withering in this chilly, asexual marriage. She needs to find something to turn the lights back on in her life.” If we can’t write a character from a place of sympathy and understanding, then we won’t be able to write the story they’re trying to tell.
So that’s character-building. In Part 3, we’ll talk about how to point the characters in the right direction — how to put them on the scent of a story, and follow them all the way through to your narrative!