How to Write A Novel, Step 5.1: Character is Action
I kept saying in Step 5 that character is action, and I promised to explain myself (eventually).
This is how I see it.
So, we’ve made those tentative first steps in getting to know our characters... perhaps we’ve built a file with vivid descriptions of what they look like, we’ve thought about how they speak, how they dress, how they see the world.
Perhaps we are starting to see them as real people who inhabit that other world, the world of our imaginations, and we may even have conversations about all sorts of things, from their favourite movie star to their view of politics (depending, of course, on their place in history – perhaps they would rather discuss their favoured jousting hero and whether the Queen should be wearing Spanish lace?).
As our relationship with each character develops we start putting them in different situations to explore how they react - particularly if the situation causes some stress (or even distress) – and now we can start to see more clearly what that character wants, what drives them, what they are prepared to put up with or do to get what they want.
And every character wants something. Even if it is just to be left alone!
Getting what they want is the basis of their conflict.
You have to really understand your characters, inside out, in order to draw your reader into the story and make them care about the conflict.
This is the point where your ‘dreaming’ needs to become really vivid... where you practise writing in different ways to see how your character best manifests herself. You could try writing an observation of them in action (third person narrative), some dialogue, or play around with writing the character from a first person point of view, where you can access their innermost thoughts or what is going on inside their heads.
This can definitely be stuff (okay, material) you can use later in the story, by the way... certainly, my daily walks often result in a mad dash back to the keyboard to record something valuable for the story.
Anyway, once we have this level of knowledge in place we are set to go. As we do write, our characters should be revealed through their actions, their motives, their dialogue...
… and they should develop.
That is, as the story unfolds, so, too, should the character(s).
In this diagram, I’ve tried to indicate how the character’s development reflects the story as it progresses along a standard story arc (and I must thank Kate Forsyth for pointing out to me that the arc is not a neat, even semi-circle, the way I have often drawn it for children in my class, but more of a gently rising curve that reaches its zenith then falls away rather more abruptly to its conclusion).
What I’m trying to point out is that characters, generally, start out fairly ordinary – not always, of course, but if there is something outstanding about them, they are often unaware of it, or, if they are aware of it, their journey will be quite different!
Somewhere, early on in the story, something is going to happen to which she will need to react, often in order to survive (either physically or emotionally), and things will keep on happening, which will change who she is, how she sees herself, and how she relates to the world around her.
This may involve transformation – into a hero; growth – overcoming a weakness or a fear; learning – new skills or a new perspective; or falling, as happens in a tragedy when the protagonist declines into immorality or insanity (think King Lear).
If you don’t believe me, think of any character in a story and think about the face they present to the world on that first page compared to the person we have come to know by the end of the book. Trace their personal journey as it follows the story... have they changed? The answer should be yes, although I’m quite willing to concede that there are quite likely elements of that changed person way back in the beginning.
And thus: character is action.
The way I see it, anyway.