Characters Reveal StoryCharacter - Every Moment Reveals Story

by Jason Sitzes


In the past few months I've focused with editorial clients on what is, essentially, character response to circumstances - because without emotional responses (internal dialogue) fictional characters simply wander from event to event. Even if they solve the crime of the century, if we don't know what ticks inside we haven't met a character at all. We've only met a detective.

Emotional responses are often revealed at the aftermath of making a choice, or having a revelation.  After all, putting our characters in positions where they have to make a choice is the essence of character. Why does your character decide A over B? What are the stakes of making choice A, what are the stakes of B, and what are the consequences of the final choice made?

Your character chooses to walk away from his marriage, even with one child born and one child on the way.  We see what leads to that choice, and we see, as the story unfolds, the consequences of this choice.  But what about the moment the choice is made? This is the emotional, inner response.  And it creates beautiful character.  Here is an excerpt from John Updike's classic and a favorite novel of mine, Rabbit, Run.  Rabbit Angstrom leaves to run an errand and as he drives he realizes he doesn't want to go home, so he keeps driving through town, out of town, and to no place in particular. "He accelerates. The growing complexity of light threatens him. He is being drawn into Philadelphia. He hates Philadelphia... He wants to go south, down, down the map into orange groves and smoking rivers and barefoot women....He doesn't drive five miles before this road begins to feel like a part of the same trap."

 Too many first drafts miss this.  Yet, it is the core of story if you want your characters to develop beyond moving from point A to B.  What happens to them between A and B, internally? And, it is to me the beauty of writing fiction. You've created life of sorts, and now you must not only give this life a world in which to live, you must not only give them choices to make within this world, you must not only create for them an antagonist (whether internal or external, man or nature); you must also create that original emotional inner response to what is happening around them, happening to them, and happening as a result of their choices. Rabbit wants to go away. His choices are unlimited and yet he drives toward the city he least desires. Updike takes us into his head as even in Rabbit's freedom, he drives the wrong way.

How many times have you known your future, seen your future, and weakness or fear causes you to make a choice that feels comfortable though it steals away the dream? Of course Rabbit ends up back home. Five decades and five books later he's still trying to run from that same home, and every time Updike takes us into Rabbit's head and gives us story... the inner emotional responses to what he's done and how many ways what he's done both sucks and is liberating. In that choice alone, though he winds up back home, the character has grown and his story has moved forward.

Michael Palmer writes medical thrillers set mostly in one of my favorite American cities, Boston (where I'll write from in a couple months).  As most thrillers go, the pacing is faster than in a literary novel like Updike's.  But watch early in the novel Miracle Cure how a master like Palmer shows us the emotional response to a character, Brian, standing in his sick father Jack's room full of trophies and awards. "There were sports photos on the walls and trophies on almost every surface that would hold one. Most of the awards had Brian's name on them. [Notice, Palmer could stop here with description, as many first drafts do, but he instead takes us into deeper character.] They were the trappings of a man who needed gleaming hardware and laminated certificates to pump up his self-esteem."

Watch in your novel where description is only description. Watch where making a choice is simply a character making a choice. Layer those moments by taking us deeper. Get to know your character and what that moment means to them. This is emotional response. 

One more example from my good friend and romance novelist Janet Chapman - ffrom an early novel, Charming the Highlander. This is a character on a plane who is, obviously, afraid. Janet could have just written Grace was afraid, and to get over it she thought of home.  But she goes deeper.  "Grace leaned her head back and closed her eyes. She willed her hormones to settle down and pushed her own worries about the air-worthiness of the plane to the back of her mind.... It was becoming a bad habit, only returning home for funerals. She was glad she was staying awhile this time. She needed the rest, the reconnection with the earth and the trees and the granite of the mountains. [Here is where many first drafts end, if they get this far.  Janet now takes us into the emotional moment.] She'd been looking out at space too long, instead of earthward. She'd forgotten what snow felt like crunching under her feet, what pine pitch smelled like on her hands. And she had forgotten that men like Greylen MacKeage still existed." She goes on to think about how she's missed her sister, did her sister really fall in love at first sight as she'd described? All this as she begins to fall asleep and forget about the flight. The emotional responses to the moment revealed a ton of story, opened a dozen questions for the reader (and character), and all in a moment that could have ended at fear and resolve. But Janet took us deeper.

Be aware of the difference between exposition or narrative that does nothing, and the examples above that move story forward. I often cut paragraph after paragraph of exposition that does nothing like the above examples. It is possible to tell us everything in a character's head and yet does nothing to reveal story. Character story should be advanced for the reader within these emotional responses, in the same way that description should do more than simply describe. All three of these examples were bestselling novels. They were written in the hands of authors who knew their characters, who questioned their motives, and who fleshed them so thoroughly they might even have been surprised at how the character reacted on an emotional level to a situation.  That, my friends, is the magic.

A dear friend asked me the other day in talking about life, love, and other unsolvable topics, if it's possible many writers have difficulty creating goals and motives for their characters because the writers themselves don't know their own life goals and motives.  Interesting question. 

Take some time this week to talk to yourself. Have you followed your heart? If not, why not? I don't care whether you have or not, and frankly neither does your inner artist.  We have free will to walk the path we want.  Because that's not the real question.

The real question is: do you know why you made the choices you made, even at the risk of not following your heart? If you know the answer to this, you're on the road understanding motive. It is at the heart of good therapy, and at the heart of good story telling.  Don't let your characters off easily by not knowing why they act as they do, and the ignoring their response to those actions. 

Don't forget this applies to all major characters, not just the hero.  The antagonist, if a person, is as equally aware and sympathetic of their motives.  Emotional responses are another layer of character, and one of the many steps to creating deep character.  You'll be amazed what you learn about your world when you throw down the emotional challenges.

copyright Jason Sitzes 2009


The Busy Writer's One-Hour Plot

The Busy Writer's One-Hour Character

Book of Checklists

The Busy Writer's Self-Editing Toolbox

The Busy Writer's KickStart Program

Write a Book Fast