Monday 7 July 2014

Making Characters Face Their Demons

In real life people have many different problems to deal with. In fiction, characters tend to have the one problem. They struggle to deal with it but it’s always there, affecting them and the story you’ve put them in.

This is necessary for fiction, otherwise things would be too vague and woolly. We need the cop to be an alcoholic, the kid to be scared of going to school, the woman to be obsessed with getting married, and so on. It doesn’t really matter if their issue is one we’ve seen before (like the ones I’ve just mentioned), because it isn’t the actual problem that people are interested in, it’s how it’s dealt with.

Which means you have to show it being dealt with.

This can come off as a bit contrived. The guy with terrible vertigo ends up facing the villain on top of the Eiffel Tower etc. But people are so keen to see the internal struggle brought out into the open that they’ll overlook these sorts of contrivances. But that doesn’t mean you can’t find a better way to bring inner and outer struggles together.

It is possible to write a story where the inner and outer stories don’t connect. If the cop whose son died sees a shrink and does his job all morose and bitter, then even though his case is about a gay serial killer his struggle with grief can affect his personality and his approach to his job.

His inner struggle basically becomes characterisation, a way to give his personality some depth.

However, if the case he’s working on is the kidnapping of a child about the same age as his son would have been, then not only does it resonate more with his personal demons, it also offers many more opportunities for the inner and outer stories to clash and create conflict and drama.

His mental state will affect how he goes about finding the boy, and the search for the boy will affect his mental state.

This is a typical sort of set up where it’s very convenient that the two strands intertwine. But despite this, the need of the audience to see a person face the thing they find hardest to deal with is so strong that even a clunky set up can be satisfying if the contrivance is established quickly and then the focus is placed on the consequences.

On the other hand, if our bereft cop requests a transfer onto the kidnap case because he feels a connection with this missing kid or the scared parents, then his personal instigation of the intertwining can remove a lot of the contrived feel.

Rather than serendipity forcing the two together, his inner struggle driving him to get involved with events similar to those he himself is dealing with not only makes sense, it also offers opportunities for drama and conflict.

This focus on how the character’s demons push him towards things that resonate with his inner struggle will also make the character behave in a way that’s very useful for the writer.

While simply having the school kid and the bully being partnered up for chemistry by the teacher will enable you to have them work their way to an odd-couple friendship, if the school kid is the one who asks the teacher to put them together, thinking it will help them sort out their differences, then it suddenly gives you a much better idea of how the story might go and how it might go wrong before it goes right. 

That doesn’t mean you can’t make it work the other way, but once you have the main character as the main force behind the story it becomes much easier to get the ball rolling.

If a woman has a disastrous affair with her married boss and swears off men and decides to transfer to the New York office, and finds her new boss to be devilishly handsome and (surprise, surprise) attracted to her, then we have a fairly standard set up for a romance.

Even though the chances of her finding herself in just the situation she was hoping to avoid creates the ideal setting for exploring her issues with men and love and relationships, clearly the writer (me) engineered the scenario in a very obvious manner.

But if the woman chooses the NY office because the boss there is very unappealing and not her type at all, and because of that reason she feels very comfortable and unflustered around him and is able to do her job, and all this success and behaving like a human makes her fall for Mr Ugly, then her issues are what got her into this predicament rather than the writer’s manipulation.

A simple adjustment to make it the character’s choice to get involved with the plot of the story, based on whatever issues they happen to be dealing with, will give the reader a stronger sense of who the character is, and the writer a quicker way to connect the character to the plot in a natural and emotionally satisfying manner.

If you found this post useful please give it a retweet. Cheers.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

They say don't let things happen to your character, let the character make things happen, and that's a good example of why.

Sarah Foster said...

If you make something happen to the character, it may end up feeling like an unbelievable coincidence. If they make the choice, it feels less contrived.

cleemckenzie said...

Interesting that we both posted about coincidence today. Must be something coincidental in the air. You've dug into some very good examples of how to turn coincidence into characterization and plot tension.

~Sia McKye~ said...

It's said that there is nothing new under the sun, meaning issues and problems our characters face have been done many times. But then we also face such issues many times. It's easy to contrive a situation and quite another to build the story with choices the character chooses. I think there is a stronger story if the character has to face their issues and overcome them. You're right, the character has to choose and that come easier if you have built a well developed character. Their choices are more interesting and somewhat surprising.

Interesting article. :-)

Sia McKye Over Coffee

Unknown said...

I just finished a novel where the character becomes addicted to pain medication and conveniently enough when he needed to be not addicted to it anymore, that just magically was the case. I would caution anyone to be careful with these demons and not make it contrived by faking a sudden recovery. I see this a lot and it's a huge annoyance to me.

Great post and excellent food for thought.

Unknown said...

Wow. Facing the demons can really change the direction of the story.

Unknown said...

I'm definitely Pro-Choice! lol No seriously, I hate those B-movie type things where the plot's denouement just happens to involve the mc's phobia or problem. Overdone or what? Great post as always!

mooderino said...

@Alex-it's a little harder to do, but pays dividends.

@Sarah - it happens so often (especially in movies) that I think we tend to turn a blind eye most of the time.

@Lee - in real life coincidences can be quite remarkable, in fiction not so much.

@Sia - thanks.

@Diane - it is tempting to take the easy route when you have the power to do so. In real life I'd take that option in a second.

@Lilith - very true.

@Lexa - cheers.

Rachna Chhabria said...

Hi Moody, I read a craft book where the writer talks of the character's inner struggle, inner journey versus external journey. He stressed on the importance of fighting the inner demons which make the character come across as strong and multi-dimensional.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

Or the villain to be stupid. Like Voldemort using that killing curse on Harry. Used it as a baby and it didn't work. Used it again after Cedric died. Didn't work. So at the end of the story...he uses it again because...why the fuck not...right? It's got to work sometimes...oh and not destroying the Pensieve thing in Dumbledore's office. That would have been my first thing if I were a super villain. "What? My enemy uses a thing to sift through his memories for clues about my plans? Yeah go and destroy that. Hit it with a sledge or something." But nope nope nope. Gotta be powerful and stupid otherwise there is no story.

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