Thoughts On Character And The Need For Revision

I don’t believe a person can do something that is fundamentally out of character for them.  By that I mean if someone you know does something that you perceive as out of character for them there are two possibilities:  One, either a physical, mental, or emotional trauma has changed their character or two, your perception of their character was flawed.

As a writer, if you create a character who does something your readers (on in the case of movies but especially television, viewers) think is wholly out of character you have not done your job well.  For example, if you have a book with a fundamentalist Baptist preacher in it, who rails against homosexuality for half the book, you can’t then turn on a dime and show him with his male lover.  You have to subtly show that as a possibility throughout the first half of the book.  You have leave bread crumbs for your readers that may not spell out that there is something amiss, but leave an impression that something isn’t quite right.  You want to leave little niggling notions in the back of your reader’s mind that they connect when you are ready for them to connect.

I read a lot recaps and reviews of television shows and movies and one thing that reviewers often mention, especially in television shows, is the concept of writers/creators earning something for the show and for the characters.  Usually this idea of earning something is used when a character acts in a way the viewer didn’t see coming or if a plot point has popped up out of nowhere.  They are saying the writer/creator didn’t prepare the ground for this action well enough.  They took shortcuts to get to a desired place and everyone notices and feels cheated.

The thing is, as a writer sometimes you think you have done all this preparation.  You think you have planted seeds for these revelations.  They are obvious to you because you know the character better than anyone else on the planet.  Of course the preacher is gay.  That is why he is so strident in public.  He has earned this place and this position, so he is doing everything he can to protect it.  Even hate and attack himself.  You as writer know that, but part of the skill of writing is to point the reader in the direction of knowing it without knowing it.   This is why it is important to sometimes step away from what you wrote for a while or give to someone else to read.  Often, fresh eyes and perspective are needed to find the flaws.

Part of a writer’s job is to write characters who are three-dimensional human beings who may surprise us with their actions while maintaining these actions are part of their character.  You leave a half-clue here and a half-clue there as you are filling in the character.  Just enough to leave an impression of something just on the periphery of the reader’s understanding.  You want the reader to know something is happening even if they don’t know quite what it is.  You must get the reader to understand that a surprising act by a character is a possibility without telegraphing it and making the character a caricature or just a collection of ticks and actions; and without making these actions seem to come out of nowhere to simply service the plot.

That is why editing and revision is so important.  It is usually in the first or second draft you find the surprise, but it is in the revising that you plant the seeds.  The revisions are where you earn the surprises and do the hard work of writing.  Also, filling in the lives of characters and learning who they are while trying to hide something in plain sight is part of the fun of writing.

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5 Responses to “Thoughts On Character And The Need For Revision”

  1. Nice article. I think a character in real life often presents itself with traits that the others around him did not anticipate, but when a writer confers such a trait upon his character, the readers don’t acknowledge. The example that you presented about the preacher with a classical overcompensation regarding his own closet homosexuality, will, more often than not, present in real life as a shocker than as something gradually revealed, but the readers of a novel would never accept that. I guess a work of fiction has the burden of being more realistic than reality itself, which I find is often very throttling experience for an author.

    • cueball Says:

      I think part of the reason readers want their fiction to show them the clues to a characters true nature is that in real life we all sometimes miss the clues that are painfully obvious because we are too close to the person or we have certain expectations about who someone is just by how they look or how we were introduced to them.

  2. Insightful, your last paragraph especially The really accomplished writers throughout time have always known and practiced this

    • cueball Says:

      As I’ve started to really delve into writing, I’ve found I am looking for characters to explore and hangout with over time. I may not like them or want to ever see them in real life, but I find them and their worlds interesting enough to see what happens in their lives.

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