Monday, February 27, 2017

Unexamined Lives

A popular post from March 2009

By Julie Wright

Plato said, "The unexamined life is not worth living." From that one could also say that the unlived life is not worth examining. And from that one could also say that a character without a life isn't worth reading.

Life is messy if you're bothering to live it well. It's all fine to live safely, but people who lock themselves into their houses and use antibacterial soap aren't usually the most interesting people out there. If your characters are like these people, your book won't make it past page five (and that's if the reader is generous)

We like to hear about people who are doing things. And we are never bored when our friends call us up to tell us their problems.

This is why your characters should have problems. They should be out doing things. Don't open your book with characters looking at a sunset (unless the sun is rocketing towards earth in a cataclysmic event that will burn us all up within the next 24 hours and the hero has to figure out how to harness the sun and put it back in its own orbit). Don't open your book with characters waking up, having a bowl of cereal, and brushing their teeth. The mundane is synonymous with life unlived. We need action!

And the best action comes from characters solving their own problems. David Gerrold said, "the bigger the problem, the bigger the character has to be to solve it." And if you want to justify telling the story you're telling, you'd better be writing that character and his problem absurdly huge.

Some problems come from a challenge. The character accepts a challenge or takes on a challenge and falls into crisis (think Lord of the Rings).

And your character must go through the try-fail cycle. He'd better go through it a few times (three is what they suggest) This means he tries to overcome his problem and fails, tries to overcome his problem and fails. But the real failure is the guy who doesn't get back up when you knock him down. So your character had better not be that guy. Your character had better be the guy hauling his backside up and shouting, "Is that all you've got?" Your character must win.

Give your characters life by letting them dive into the messy complications of REALLY living. And if you're starting to worry about yourself becoming boring, maybe take on a challenge or two for yourself on your off writing days . . . it'll give you more to write about.


Kimberly said...

I don't know what insight you gals have into my brain but oi, you're forever writing about exactly what I'm struggling with. Currently, evolving my main character into someone the reader cares about. A person with problems but who isn't a whiney sot.

Thanks for the insight, as always!

Josi said...

No kidding--and the examining never stops, does it?

Becky said...

Not only great advice for developing characters, but for living life as well!

Janette Rallison said...

This is why nobody volunteers to be a fictional character.

Anonymous said...

My life is the REASON I lock myself up in my house and use anti-bacterial soap!

Now that makes for an odd character... but what does it say about me?