Part two of a column describing the elements of characterization in a novel.
Fiction Craft: Characterization (Part 2)
Having given characters a history and motivation, now put them in motion with a threat to their well-being. Set high stakes for the protagonist's story goal: life or death, happiness or despair, love or loneliness. To ensure the story goal merits readers' concern, match the quest against standards in Georges Polti's book, The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations. Using examples from literature, Polti categorizes the human conflicts which motivate characters.
DRIVE THE CHARACTER
Drive your character with three actions:
1. Give the character a story goal.
2. Threaten the goal.
3. Provide reasons for the character to continue fighting.
ESTABLISH PROTAGONIST'S DOMINANT ATTITUDE
Readers want heroes, not victims. Though saddled with human flaws, the protagonist looms large in one trait: she never quits. Against increasing odds, she summons the will to fight, scene after scene. Sequels reveal her wounds, supporting characters offer her chances to quit, and the antagonist gains the upper hand throughout the story. Yet the heroine uses skills, smarts and guts to counter-punch.
In my novel, DEAR MR. KAPPS, 14-year-old Rafe Mackey, an aspiring comedy writer, struggles against two of Polti's dramatic situations: Falling Prey to Misfortune and Obstacles to Love. Here are segments from Rafe's opening letter to his idol, television comedian Solomon Kapps:
Dear Mr. Kapps:
Today I finished reading your book, Know Jokes! I hope you can help me. I finished reading the book in my doctor's office, because I needed something to take my mind of the news--good or bad.
Dr. Wong told me I have lymphoma, cancer of the lymph glands. I didn't know I had lymph glands. They're supposed to keep me from getting sick. I didn't want to start this letter with a downer, but you need to know the real deal. Dr. Wong said I had a "good" cancer. She meant lymphoma can be cured. She said my cancer hadn't spread much, but by that time I'd already hit the off button.
I write. So I'm writing you.
You've got to be asking, "Why are you writing me? Well, I love your television show. I love the way you make Mom and me laugh and I love your book. You want to know what's weird, Mr. Kapps? I choke when I speak in front of people, but when I write jokes and funny scripts, the kids all laugh. When I make people laugh, I feel good.
I dream about three things: football, you and Jenny Outland (more on her later.) I can't imagine not playing football, but Mom and Dr. Wong said maybe next year, when I've finished chemotherapy.
Now I need to write to someone who can make me laugh. I'm scared, Mr. Kapps. Last night I had a nightmare. I saw my own funeral. Guys from the football team carried my casket. I woke up sweating.
Maybe you could write something from Chapter One, "Getting Material from Your Life." My life's a train wreck: I've got cancer; I can't play football and my head will shine like a cue ball. Then there's the Jenny thing. (But Jenny deserves a whole letter.)
I promise you, Mr. Kapps. I'm going to beat this cancer.
Hoping to hear from you,
Rafe (Soon To Be Bald) Mackey
SHOW AS MUCH COURAGE AS YOUR CHARACTERS
Creating courageous characters demands courage. To make characters come alive, you must reach deep within yourself, writing both to your passions and fears. During my presentation at a writers conference, a member of the audience asked, "How did you research Rafe's cancer experience to make it seem so real?"
I answered that I had lived Rafe's experience, surviving lymphoma 23 years ago. More than two decades passed before I could revisit the fear, uncertainty and pain. Rafe and fellow cancer patient Brad Boxleitner challenge each other as they attempt to build a P-38 model airplane in a race against time. Through his letters to Mr. Kapps, Rafe's life unfolds in a story of love, loyalty and growth.
In summary, nothing ranks higher in your story than multi-dimensional characters. Whether heroines or villains, build them from the inside out, using the mortar of your passions, experience and dreams.
Next month: Plot