How to escape the one-dimensional character trap in fiction writing

It amazes me that in this day, we still look upon individuals and conclude a one-dimensional experience about them even if they are telling us with their actions and words everything to the contrary.

The same can apply to our stories. When writing fiction our characters represent a culture, a type, an experience.  And even though we can never represent all faces of that culture or experience we can ensure that our characters are multidimensional and that we have not short-changed them as we describe who they are.

I remember when the movie, Boyz n the Hood came out in the ‘80s I was working at a bank and a  co-worker said to me: “Oh, my god, I had no idea.” I guess she was under some delusion that I was silently suffering in a violent, impoverished environment while everyday coming into work to process expense reports for a living as a way to alleviate the pain of my miserable existence (The truth was, I was as shocked by the depictions in the movie as she).

 

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And yet I think she missed something even in that particular movie. Although there was an obvious theme of the injustices on young, African-American young men, there was so much more. Even within that subculture there were various dynamics and experiences and even within the same experience there was a different impact on each person. There is no one voice. There is no one experience. Even as two individuals gaze at the moon, each will see something different, each will reflect on his or her own connection to it. It is what makes us as humans so wonderfully amazing.

As you are telling your story I encourage you to ask the “what if”. Try looking at your story from various angles. Try to write against type. Add a new dimension to your character, perhaps one you haven’t seen or read about before. Add the “what if” element and see where it takes you. Perhaps it will be ridiculous. Or perhaps it will allow your fiction to speak to a broader audience. You may even learn something new. Remember, we are always growing, constantly discovering, forever seeking.

Why Inspiration may be the biggest enemy to your success

The thing about success is that it is elusive to most of us. It is a risky thing to work at something for weeks, months or even years before seeing results. In the beginning everyone is your biggest supporter. Everyone likes a good success story; more than that, people just like new, including you. That fresh, clean smell of a brand, spanking new project is like euphoria unleashed. The air feels cleaner, your back’s a little straighter and you have a positive word for everyone who crosses your path.

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Even if you haven’t quite done anything yet; you’ve thought it through, talked about it, prayed over it, read as much as you could take on it. You’ve inspired yourself into a type of: Tony Robbins/T.D Jakes/Joel Olsteen fit. You and your parents, mentors, sisters, brothers and closest friends all agree that this is the perfect time to do it.

So there it is. Grinning like a guy in an ad for a Colgate commercial, you give your sleeves the proverbial roll-up, turn from the inspiration to the task it takes to get there and…sigh.

 

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It is then you remember the errand you have to run, that phone call to what’s-his-name that has to be made now because you haven’t spoken to him in forever. You find everything to do but work. I could call this procrastination, but this really wouldn’t be digging deep enough.

Hardest decisions

It is that fear of, I am not enough that creeps in after the dust clears and all you can see is labor. Let’s face it inspiration doesn’t last forever. It’s like falling in love. At some point in the relationship, your stomach doesn’t do that, ‘thing’ when you see him, down the line you won’t think of him every hour or giggle to yourself when you do. Nope. It’s doesn’t mean that the love is gone. It simply means that you have settled into something more sustainable. The energy of love is still there but it has been redirected to the needful things…nursing him back to health when he or she is sick, washing her clothes, remembering to order the Chinese food without shrimp because he’s allergic.

Likewise, with projects the energy of shouting it to the mountaintop has to be redirected to actually developing the business plan, making the cold calls and perhaps hearing a 101 ‘nos’ before you hear a ‘yes’. Writers know this all too well. We spend months, even years creating our masterpiece hoping that someone will connect with our story without even a glimmer of indication that they will. It can be both exhilarating and debilitating at the same time

The thing with inspiration is that it is a great starter, a springboard. But too often we keep returning to that starting point instead of trudging ahead. Tremble in the face of fear, but move forward anyway. There is always the fear that you will invest time and money in this and your project will mock you and then kneel over and die. A tiny dark voice will whisper that you are not enough; no one will ever read, invest or believe in this thing and that they will all stare at you with glazed eyes in the middle of your presentation. Your books will sit in an unused corner of your basement. There will be that sickly feeling inside that all those who are on board with you will be embarrassed and disappointed by this fantastic dream of yours. And yet you will have to tell yourself that this will work and it is meant to be. When you stop believing it, you will have to say it again and again until you believe it again. Eventually you will have to find that place inside that will sustain you through this task. It is not always inspiration. It is will. It is God. It is this fine line that separates the winners from those that just like winners–we all do.

This thing of yours is not for any prize or accolade but it is because something has weld up inside of you and won’t go away until it is realized. It is the God inside of you telling you that this is His plan, His will, His way. But it won’t work itself. When inspiration kicks rocks, work it still.

Stay true to your character’s character

Stay true to your character’s character

A couple of years ago I heard someone say that people do not change. At first I was put off by this remark, seemingly so cynical, so dark. If people don’t change then what is the point in trying to live a better life? But it echoed repeatedly in my head since the moment I heard it. And soon I had to come to the conclusion that, for the most part people remain constant, true to their character. In other words who you are is who you will always be. Now mind you, this is not to say that what you do is what you will always do. Who you are and what you do are two different elements. Your nature, your personality, your true spirit will remain intact. Introverts will be introverts no matter how much public speaking they do because their internal dialogue will always outweigh the external. Extroverts will always have a need to express themselves socially, no matter how their tongues are bridled. You are who you are. And as your life progresses, the real you becomes more apparent.

 

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Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan

 

The same is true for characters of fiction. That is why character development is so essential. Establish in the beginning as much as you can about your character; know their upbringing, including those experiences that have tarnished them in so way. Know their deepest desires, their darkest fears and childhood experiences. Write out the time and place in which they were born. All of these things play a part in the makeup of a person’s character. It is possible that you may not mention in detail every aspect of their experiences—that could make for a tedious book, especially if you have a lot of characters—but it will add authenticity to your writing. As your story progresses it will be easier to see and feel which way your character should move, act and think. Don’t characters grow and learn from their experiences? You may ask. Yes, they do. But learning and growing is more about realizing and expressing what is already there, whether it is strength or courage or even jealousy. In the Bible when Cain killed Abel out of jealousy, this wasn’t a new character trait; he wasn’t less of himself. He was already selfish and absorbed with his own desires. This was apparent by the sacrifice he brought to God (which is what led to his desperate situation in the first place).

But then, perhaps in your story the character remains stagnant; he was a mean drunk in the beginning and remained a mean drunk until the end, as in the movie Joe starring Nicholas Cage. Gary Poulter played a rancorous, abusive, alcoholic and remained one until the end. But situations around him changed, other characters grew and developed and in the end what he was became more apparent, and obvious. His  personality became stronger and the intensity increased by the stark changes that were taking place around him.

What you do want to avoid is a character whose personality suddenly shifts, changes without an apparent reason. That is not the nature of human development. When I first saw the movie, The Godfather, it took me a minute to analyze Michael Corleone’s characteristics. In the beginning he is an enigma. He has just come home from military duty. He at this point is a man who honors his country and is determined to do what is right despite his family’s business. Later on in the story when he is completely entrenched in the very business he shunned it seems that he has lost it and taken a path so far from his truth. But let’s take a second look; Michael was dedicated, committed—common traits of those who commit to military duty. Michael also had a heart for his family, even in the beginning. You see that heart as he embraced their presence at his sister’s wedding. And then of course, we see those characteristics even more evident after the death of his father. And even as he becomes ruthless and cold those were not ‘new or unlikely character traits. They were dormant, breeding. He was, in fact a product of his environment. It was his intense commitment and dedication that lead to his perpetual struggle to remain dedicated to his family, mainly his father. He kept that commitment to his father even in death, even while destroying those who dared to block his path. That is why it is important to know your character to the extent that you can in the beginning. And as you write, your characters will talk to you and reveal themselves to you as their circumstances change; through tragedies, highs, lows, moments of confusion and despair they will whisper to you-revealing what you need to know. They will be true to themselves. It is up to you to be true to them.

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