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.
I’m back again with part 3 of a 3-part series on character-driven narrative and character development as worldbuilding! Make sure to read parts 1 and 2 before you read this, otherwise you’ll be deeply confused.
Last time, we talked about giving a character depth and weight (Identify Motivation and Identify Relationships). Now, let’s learn how to set a character loose so they’ll show you their story.
Raise the stakes
Okay, so, Betsy is in the bar and she’s decided to make a move on Scar Knife (normally I build all my characters out to their full depth, but I’m already way over wordcount on this column, so Scar Knife is his name now and forever).
How do we make this interesting?
First, we identify the stakes. What’s at risk for Betsy? Right now, basically nothing. Maybe her pride. If she approaches Scar Knife and he says thanks-but-no-thanks, she goes home with a bruised ego, but she eventually moves on. In her internal life, these are high enough stakes — she’s drawing on a lot of courage in seeking out a Gentleman Acquaintance. But for the reader, those internal dynamics aren’t really enough to drive a narrative. It’s an interesting writing exercise, and can be well-executed, but there’s got to be more at play to make it a compelling story.
So, we raise the dramatic stakes of the narrative. This is like adding spice into a sauce — it doesn’t change how you cook the chicken, but it changes the flavor by quite a lot. Since I write SFF, I’m going to raise the stakes with some fantasy-spice.
Here’s what I think is going on: I think Scar Knife is in this bar looking for a vessel for his demon master to inhabit, and he thinks he may have spotted just the right one — the little blonde lady in the pastel cardigan with the wedding-ring tan-line on her finger. If only he could figure out how to make contact with her.
Ka-pow! The stakes are raised! And we raised them just by giving Scar Knife a touch of motivation. Now we have our characters, we have a narrative dynamic, we’re almost ready to let them loose. They’ll make the story happen for us — we just have to write it all down.
If things get a little slow, by the way, we’ll just raise the stakes again. Soap operas do this beautifully: when things get slow, someone turns out to be someone else’s relative (spoiler alert: Scar Knife is Tod’s long-lost brother), or someone turns out to have a secret identity (I’m thinking Polo Shirt is a demon-hunter, if you’re wondering).
The difference between our story and a soap opera is that our story needs to be self-contained — it needs to rise to climactic action, come together, and then finish well. But don’t worry! Our characters will take it there. They can’t sustain raised stakes forever — eventually, someone will snap. Something will give. A demon will jump into the body of an undercover demon-hunter, two long-lost brothers will be re-united, Betsy will realize that the adventure she was looking for wasn’t sex at all (it was demon-hunting, she’s a demon hunter now, GO BETSY GO).
Now that we’ve raised the stakes, there’s just one more thing to do:
Follow the rules
I tend to think of the rules I set out for my characters as being similar to the rules in a playground game. They’re not there to define how the magic works, and they’re not there to tell the story. They’re there to give your characters some rules to play within; they’re there to challenge rather than to define. If you spend a lot of space on how-exactly-the-magic-works, then these rules become the foreground of the story (boring) instead of the background of the story (supportive). The reader doesn’t need to know all the rules; but you, the writer, should know what the rules are, and you should stick to them.
Here’s why: If you don’t know how the world works, you can’t set boundaries. Your characters will run amok; they’ll become bloated with power, constantly one-upping each other with bigger, more impossible stunts, and your story will fall to pieces because anything is possible. If you know how the world works — if you set some boundaries — your characters will become creative and will work within those boundaries to create a great story.
Let’s say, for instance, that there’s a rule that says Scar Knife has to be touching someone if they’re to become a demon-vessel — that’s a boundary we’re setting for him. We don’t have to say it explicitly — we can demonstrate it pretty easily in the action of the story — but we know it, and Scar Knife knows it. So, he’s going to be trying to get his hands on Betsy. But he’ll end up with his hands on Polo Shirt, and in-goes-the-demon. How does that happen? What tensions come up when he’s trying to touch Betsy, and why doesn’t he get to? How does he end up touching Polo Shirt?
With one constraint, we’ve built these characters an action scene in which Polo Shirt spots what Scar Knife is up to, tries to stop him, and ends up taking a demon-bullet in the line of duty.
Note that we didn’t start out this story with “A demon hunter takes heroic action in a bar and winds up possessed.” We started out with “A woman is bored in her marriage and wants to have an affair.” We made Betsy real. Then, we added motivations and relationships into the mix, giving her character depth and history. We raised the stakes — what happens in this situation is important. Finally, we catalysed the action with a single rule — and suddenly, there’s a story with solid action, a climax, and a satisfying ending. We built the characters with depth and let them loose in a world with a few loosely-defined constraints, and they built the story for us.
If I were to write this as a short story, it would certainly need fleshing out. My beta readers would probably ask questions like “why doesn’t Betsy just divorce Tod?” The character development I do before writing a story makes the revision process pretty fun for me, because I frequently know the answers to my beta readers’ questions, even if I hadn’t thought of them before.
I know the answers because my characters are real. I know their motivations and their relationships. Those are some of the deepest things you can know about a person, and you can extrapolate a lot from that data.
When you’ve developed characters well, the revision process becomes a matter of exploring your characters a little more, and then finding fun language to apply to the answers you find. When you’re not trying to twist characters to suit your authorial whims, they do things that come naturally to them; when you’re asked to explain their actions, you’re not trying to mend a plot hole so much as you’re trying to let the reader in on a layer that your character already had.
So, in Harry Potter, when Hagrid keeps drinking, I wonder “why?” — and because J.K. Rowling is a master of her craft, there’s an answer there. It might not be the one she had in mind, but her characters are richly written. They contain multitudes, and what I can tell you with absolute certainty is that even if Hagrid doesn’t drink for the reasons I think he drinks, he definitely drinks for a reason. Because he’s real. Real people are filled with and driven by complex internal lives.
As a writer, you get to build those lives. You get to breathe depth and nuance into the people you create. So get to it!
Writers, what are your favorite tools for character building? Readers, what characters have you encountered who seemed to hint at a whole internal world of complexity and development? One lucky commenter will win a book from our Stacks.