Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Complex or Confusing?

Yesterday, Alicia talked about a self-contradicting character in a book she's reading. The character had an affair which seemed to mean little to him as it happened, but then two years later he is still dwelling on its importance. This kind of contradiction, if managed properly, can be accepted by the reader because feelings do change over time. We don't always recognize the importance of events as they unfold. (Of course, the key is managing the change so that it's accepted by the reader. That's part of the authorial control Alicia mentioned.)

Her post resonated with me, though, because three times in as many days, I've had to read manuscripts in which characters have unresolved self-contradictions like this. I won't discuss the specifics of any of those manuscripts (except to say these aren't private clients, but a rather unusual circumstance that put these manuscripts on my desk), but here's an example of the sort of thing I mean. Imagine your heroine has an older cousin and they've always been close. The heroine admires the cousin and wants to be just like her, rhapsodizes about her elegance and kindness and femininity and whatever. But the heroine also hates everything this cousin has ever done in her life, and complains constantly about the cousin's string of personal and professional failures.

"I want to be just like this woman who is a total failure."

Okay, so there might be ways to work this heroine's character and arc so that this statement isn't a contradiction, but rather is evidence of complexity. Perhaps the heroine does want to model her behavior after a total failure -- perhaps she thinks she can do it better, or perhaps she wants to fail, or perhaps part of her journey is moving from awareness of the model's virtues to awareness of her flaws. Any of these patterns could take this apparent contradiction and work it into a resolved whole.

But here's the thing. In all three recent manuscripts, I saw no evidence of any attempt to resolve these contradictions. There wasn't even an attempt to address them or recognize them. It's possible the authors were unaware of the contradictions, or maybe they thought they had managed to handle the details more effectively.

This is the catch with character complexity. We slather on characteristics to try to breathe life into our paper people, but sometimes those characteristics don't resolve into a lucid whole. So when you're doing your character work, take a moment to think about any possible contradictions. Not just contradictions, but also characteristics that don't ordinarily go together -- you know, like a quiet, bookish man who attends cage fighting matches every weekend.

Once you've identified the contradictions, the next step is figuring out a way to make them gel into a coherent whole. Think about underlying traits that might be generating both traits that cause the apparent contradictions. For example, our quiet man might love cage fighting and books because each offers him a safe avenue for emotional release. If that's the case, then every time this man reads a book, talks about a book, watches a fight, etc., he *must* be experiencing some kind of catharsis. Or at least hoping for it. The need for release might come out in other safe ways, too, and frustrating that need might lead to plot twists.

But -- here's the kicker -- that core need must be revealed to the reader. Otherwise, the reader will be left wondering what kind of guy she's reading about. Discussion of the need can be subtle, and it can even be implied rather than addressed directly, but it still has to be something the reader can at least figure out on their own from the actual clues on the page. And if someone tells you that it's not making sense, then even if you *think* you've done the work to unify your character, guess what? It's not on the page. Therefore, it doesn't exist for the reader.

When we talk about depth, this is part of that discussion. It's something to do with underlying coherence, with recognizing deeper character drives that manifest in different ways. And then communicating them to the reader in a way that demonstrates -- here's that phrase again -- authorial control.



Wes said...

Interesting post. I suppose most of these occurances are from not following the through-line to its eventual conclusion.

Possibly another way to use this technique/problem effectively would be to show conflicts within a character. I've thought of doing this in book three as my MC degenerates. He's opposed to slavery, yet he buys a hot young female slave for sex because of his deep lust. I'm concerned that this might be too dark, but writing is about art, isn't it? Of course, there is no guarantee I can pull it off artisticly. It would also drive a wedge between the MC and his good friend, a former slave, which could add some interesting conflict.

Edittorrent said...

I don't know, Wes. He's young, right? I think ideals tend to yield to lust up to a certain age. :)