Columns > Published on June 13th, 2012

The Escaping Character

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.

About the author

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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