The Escaping Character

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Ever wonder what it means when a writer says they created a character that “ran away with the story?” Or how some writers claim they let their characters “dictate the terms” of the narrative?

A plot led by a character’s behaviors is going to yield a better probability of surprising — and ultimately, challenging — the reader than a plot indifferent to its cast. The reason? Plot is dictated by theme and cause-and-effect. Characters are dictated by human motivation. You can guess which usually compels people more. It doesn’t matter what your story is “about”: all stories are ultimately accounts of people, the mysteries and overarching truths that make us who we are. As such, a character’s revelations should be vital to the plot, and the plot should likewise reveal vital details of that character.

People, to a degree, are recognized by their behaviors. In the eyes of others, we are what we do. In fiction, this is even more so. A character is only what the writer has allowed us to see of them. But here’s something else to consider: readers recognize characters based on their own experiences. The less you say about a character, the more our experiences take over and form an abstraction of that person independent of the story. If you only describe a character by the business suit he’s wearing, chances are we’re going to assume the character is ambitious, and probably has a bit of money. If you only describe a female character by her job at the library, chances are we’re going to assume she’s brainy and shy.

A hallmark of bad writing involves a story that sets up a character and then spends the remainder of the narrative simply reaffirming our initial impressions of that character. If the writer never does the work to move their character from that default position, the reader is essentially just watching their predictions unfold on the page. Instead, a good character should subvert the reader’s expectations at every chance. He/she should confront — even confuse — a reader’s proclivity to assume they have your character figured out. You can do this by investing enough idiosyncratic details into your character throughout the story until the reader is eventually forced to discard any initial judgments they may have of that character. In other words, your character needs to continuously escape the confines of our experiences and expectations.

It’s an unfortunate feature of human nature that we judge others so readily, but the good news is that writers can exploit readers’ proclivity to judge to their own advantage. In other words, you can catch your reader off guard by playing off those presumed expectations and contradicting a reader’s initial impressions of your characters.

For instance, your character is a hippy vegan who lives in a commune. There's some obvious behavioral bait any modern reader is going to take from this information. But you can really throw an unexpected turn in the story by later showing your character engage in an act that actually reveals her to be materialistic and petty. The trick works because it takes advantage of your readers’ natural proclivity to assume they have someone figured out, and then throws an unexpected turn that both catches the reader off guard and allows your character to escape descriptive confinement.

To illustrate my point, take a look at the maze below.

If you’ll notice, the above isn’t any different than the garden-variety puzzles most of us played as kids. With your finger (or a pen, if you want to ruin your computer screen) try to plot the twists and turns of the maze as you maneuver from the starting point (on the left) to the end (on the right). As your story progresses, your characters should make the same movements: characters should never advance in a straight line; instead, every time you think the reader has an idea of who your character is, throw in another unexpected turn. Your character should always be one step ahead of the reader; he/she should always maintain a capacity to surprise. That way, the behaviors we witness over time begin to form an idea of a person who becomes less of a type and more of an enigmatic individual.

When we finally do get to the end of the maze — and if we begin tracing the marks left by our pens backwards — in hindsight we realize their course was inevitable. In fact, it appears so clear we may feel we should have seen these twists coming. A compelling character works the same way. When we look back at the course of events that occurred in the story, we notice the unexpected turns were actually behaviors fittingly unique to that character. Each turn is exactly what that character would do in that situation. In other words, characters should not merely surprise in their behaviors, they need to behave in ways that are wholly germane to who they are.

As writers, your ability to deliver characters that both subvert reader expectations and behave in ways that are wholly unique to their individual machinations is a quality that will separate you from the crowd. There’s no question that crafting a unique, compelling character is one of the hardest things a writer can do, so it makes sense that this is a task often wrought with anxiety. However, a lot of the ritualistic fretting you’ll hear writers engaging in over character details (What kind of toothpaste would my character use? Boxers or briefs?) can be avoided if writers make sure to threaten readers’ perceptions of their character by placing revelatory turns throughout the story. A story should be a course marred with uncertainty and challenge. There should be barriers, twists, impasses. Make things uncomfortable for your reader. Make things difficult. Anytime you say something new about a character, you open that window of description a little wider, giving your characters a chance to escape descriptive confinement instead of playing into the reader’s hands.

Jon Gingerich

Column by Jon Gingerich

Jon Gingerich is editor of O'Dwyer's magazine in New York. His fiction has been published in literary journals such as The Oyez Review, Pleiades, Helix Magazine, as well as The New York Press, London’s Litro magazine, and many others. He currently writes about politics and media trends at www.odwyerpr.com. Jon holds an MFA in creative writing from The New School. Some of his published fiction can be found at www.jongingerich.com.

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Comments

bryanhowie's picture
bryanhowie from FW, ID is reading East of Eden. Steinbeck is FUCKING AMAZING. June 13, 2012 - 2:35pm

Can you give me a few more examples of using this technique?  It seems simple, but thinking on it, I'm not sure how to implement it except by making a character do something that seems out of character (which would break the consistancy of the character).  How do you do it subtly? 

GaryP's picture
GaryP from Denver is reading a bit of this and that June 13, 2012 - 2:38pm

Perfect timing. Working on character for my current piece. Hoping that concentrating on the character's motivation will help with plotting less predictable pieces.

JonGingerich's picture
JonGingerich from New York City is reading Tenth of December by George Saunders. June 13, 2012 - 3:48pm

Howie,


Given I'm not familiar with the specifics of your story, I'll simply say this: the idea is to let the character you've created dictate the terms of the story instead of merely placing ‘anyone’ inside a predetermined plot mold. In other words, the narrative should follow a character’s movements, not guide them.

The gist of what I’m trying to get at in the article is this: you can offer both a unique character and an unpredictable story simultaneously by having your character do things that 1) we would ever expect or see coming, and 2) reveal telling details about who this person is.
It's really tough, because you have to make your character do things that are 1) unexpected, 2) absolutely unique to them, but 3) consistent enough in pathology that they serve to create a realistic abstraction of a person, or in other words, don’t render your character confusing or unbelievable.

You’re right to be worried about the subtly of this application, because you have to make sure these unpredictable behaviors occur because it's something your character would genuinely do, and isn’t simply a facile convenience performed for the sake of turning the plot. If you begin injecting completely unrealistic behaviors into a character just to keep the plot on course toward your preconceived end, the “illusion” of the story fails, because the reader sees you’re just throwing in random occurrences not because the character would do them, but becasue the writer wants to bring the story to a quick or convenient closure.

A good way to kick off this process is to always remember what your character wants, and then to reveal a unique yet pathologically consistent way of him/her going about getting what they want. Again, it's really hard, because your character has to always earn his/her behaviors by acting in ways that are 100% uniquely them, yet the behaviors have to remain unpredictable enough that the reader feels the story could go anyway at anytime. Unfortunately, there's no short cut to do this. No one ever said writing was easy.

When in doubt, repeat the mantra that your story has to be unexpected but inevitable. I can’t stress this maxim enough: it's one of the most valuable things I learned.

Hope this helps.

 

bryanhowie's picture
bryanhowie from FW, ID is reading East of Eden. Steinbeck is FUCKING AMAZING. June 13, 2012 - 4:05pm

That helps a ton.  I've heard that a story has to be inevitable, but never 'unexpected but inevitable'.  I'd love to read an essay about that.

Michael J. Riser's picture
Michael J. Riser from El Cerrito, CA (originally), now Fort Worth, TX is reading The San Veneficio Canon - Michael Cisco, The Croning - Laird Barron, By the Time We Leave Here, We'll Be Friends - J. David Osborne June 13, 2012 - 5:45pm

This is good advice, and in thinking about it, it made me realize some things about my current manuscript. I think my character is pretty consistent, but he hasn't done a lot to surprise other than one major thing, which isn't revealed until later in the story. I think I may need to show a bit more about that prior to the full revelation.

GaryP's picture
GaryP from Denver is reading a bit of this and that June 13, 2012 - 7:43pm

So ... what if you have a character living in a dystopian society. He's unaware that anything's wrong until the inciting incident. I'm struggling with his motivation before the incident (and giving him something interesting to do). Without a hook, no one's going to read about his bland existence for a page or two. 

Oh. I think I just figured it out.

Bii (before inciting incident), he's excited about "something"--we'll call it the Maltese Falcon--(I haven't figured out what that something is yet as I'm formulating this idea as I type). Whatever that Maltese Falcon really is, it needs to be both extremely important to him and an interesting hook, of course.

Aii (after inciting incident) he continues pursuing the Maltese Falcon even as he starts to realize that his society sucks. Then a defining moment comes when he succeeds in getting the Maltese Falcon and realizes that the Falcon is worthless because of the sucky society he lives in.

adam_bowman's picture
adam_bowman from England is reading Love in the Time of Cholera June 14, 2012 - 6:28am

Brilliant essay, thanks, your articles are easily the best on litreactor. I'm off to read some of your short stories!

Meryl S. Fortney's picture
Meryl S. Fortney from Harrisburg, PA is reading The Explosion of Your Face June 16, 2012 - 1:21pm

Great article! I can see that this website is going to be a great resource.

GG_Silverman's picture
GG_Silverman from Seattle June 23, 2012 - 5:44pm

Great essay, thanks!

Rick Daley's picture
Rick Daley from Lewis Center, OH is reading The Feasts of Lesser Men by Stephen Parrish June 26, 2012 - 8:53am

Interesting and valid points, especially the warning about surprise moments that actually go against the grain of the character.  Setting up a character just to pull a 180-degree reversal of attitude out of thin air (like the materialistic hippie) can be a bait-and-switch if it's done without proper motivation; it doesn't add depth to the characterization, it shatters it.

Tristan French's picture
Tristan French from SoCal is reading My 1st attempt at a book August 21, 2012 - 8:42pm

I can't be the only one referring to this site WHILE they write, and i'm sure that i'll just pound out a rough draft before i try to iron out all the kinks in the system, character, dialouge, or no.

On a somewhat related note, i am inexperienced, and i wish to learn techniques for writing, in addition to the examples that you and your kin are providing for the aspiring artist in all of us!

Any suggestions on getting 8 seperate characters to clash opinion/argue? It's kinda a big deal in the "Survival/Horror" Genre that i'm shooting for.

Kate SD's picture
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