How to revise your characters attitudes
This is part 5 in my post-NaNoWriMo series on strengthening your characters while revising your novel. So far in this series we’ve covered most of the superficial and mid-level aspects of your character, their dialogue, their mannerisms, and their bodies.
Today, we’re moving deeper to talk about attitudes: the opinions and beliefs your characters hold that shape the choices they make and the way they interact with other people.
There are three important goals you should strive for when revising attitudes: One, creating complexity. Do your characters hold complex views about life, just like real people? This is the time to take one-dimensional characters and flesh them out into believable human beings. Two, ensuring consistency. Real people’s attitudes tend to cluster into well established groups according to social, cultural, economic, political, and religious lines. This is the time to make sure that your characters’ beliefs fit together into a unified whole. Three, differentiating characters from one another both to create drama and believability in the whole work. After all, no two people hold the same attitudes about everything, and those differences are the source of much excellent drama.
Consider the individual
The first two goals, complexity and consistency, are ones you can tackle by considering your characters one at a time.
If you’re the sort of writer who does extensive character development before writing the book, you likely already have copious notes about what everyone in your book believes. Review these notes and make sure that your characters don’t sound like one-dimensional cardboard cutouts. Especially if you have used shortcuts like “slick used car salesman” to create a quick mental picture of a character, now is the time to dig deeper. Sure, maybe your used car salesman will do or say anything to close the deal, but ask yourself, is that really true? Would he really sell a lemon to a single mother who he knows won’t be able to afford the car’s inevitable repair bills? Does he consider all customers equally, or is he biased against low-income or minority buyers who walk onto his lot? It’s all up to you, but ask yourself whether particular answers to questions like that will give you opportunities to align or clash with other characters.
If you didn’t do any particular character development , that’s ok too. This is a great occasion to discover your characters’ beliefs by interviewing them. Browse around online to find one of those “lists of 100 questions to answer about your characters” that pop up on so many writing websites. Find one you like, and write a scene at a cafe or something where you, the author, literally have a conversation with the character. Now that you’ve finished the novel, you probably have a gut feel for the character’s attitudes even if you can’t name them specifically. Conducting an interview is a great way to discover the specifics behind that gut feel. Again, look at the results and ask whether they are complex enough, and whether there are opportunities for change that will create drama later.
Whichever method you used, consider whether any of a character’s attitudes clash with the rest of what that person feels and believes. Are any particular beliefs against-type for the character’s social, ethnic, or economic background? If not, that’s fine. If so you can either change it to enhance that character’s portrayal as a representative of their background, or leave the clash but work to find a justification for it.
For example, if you have a teenager who is a devout fundamentalist Christian but who also believes that pre-marital sex is ok, you’ve got a clash. You can make the character fall in line with his peers, or else come up with a reason for it. Maybe he was himself the product of a pre-marital affair. He knows he wouldn’t exist without pre-marital sex. On a certain level, he owes his life to it. And since he can also feel God’s love personally in how own life regardless of his parents’ marital status, he has trouble getting too worked up about that particular issue.
Consistency in attitudes should also apply across the whole book, except to the degree that the character grows or changes over the course of the book. The overall character arc (which I’ll cover at the end of this series) may well be structured around changing one or more of a character’s attitudes through the events of the plot. That’s a good thing, but that’s something I’ll cover more in the next installment.
Consider the cast
Before you go jumping into your manuscript to adjust all your individual characters, spend some time considering the attitudes of your cast as a whole. In this, you are looking for ways to heighten the drama, create opportunities for conflict and obstacles, and create the sort of moral ambiguity that so often occurs in real life.
Allies. Look at who in your book is allied with who else, and find ways to differentiate their attitudes from one another. This is a great way to create internal tension within the group. If you can do this for one or more beliefs which guide the group’s decision at key points in the book, you also immediately elevate the drama surrounding those decisions. Will the group go one person’s way, or another’s, or will the group split up? You can have some great arguments and confrontations around what the best thing to do is, when allied characters differ in their core beliefs.
Adversaries. The other way to do is to look at pairs of characters who are adversaries, and find ways to give them similar attitudes to each other. You can leave your protagonists with some terribly difficult decisions to make if they discover that they are not so very different from their antagonists. It can also work tremendously well to give adversaries the same core belief, but have them interpret it in radically different ways.
You might, for example, have adversaries who were once allies in the environmental movement, except one of them decided that the best way to fight climate change is to promote renewable energy while the other decided that the best way was mass murder. One is attacking the supply-side of the energy economy, while the other is attacking the demand side. Literally. If the FBI calls your hero to help stop the eco-terrorist before he wipes Los Angeles off the map, your hero may have some tricky moral questions to resolve: yes, murder is wrong, but climate change itself stands to kill a lot more people so maybe the villain’s brutally expedient strategy isn’t so wrong in the big picture. At any rate, the hero can certainly empathize with the villain’s point of view, which can give you some great drama.
You can mix-and-match those strategies, of course, but even when applied exactly as I’ve described they both work just fine.
Attitudes and beliefs start to get into who your characters are on a deep, personal level. I don’t encourage you to change their attitudes willy-nilly. Be thoughtful about it. But undeniably, conflicts and unexpected alignments in attitudes are both opportunities for strengthening your characters and your plot at the same time. So many novels suffer from flat characterization and the dreaded “sagging middle.” Making strategic choices about your characters attitudes and beliefs offers you the opportunity to fix both at the same time.
December 09, 2009 00:03 UTC
Although the classic Latin phrase Carpe Diem has spawned many derivative jokes, the core meaning of this cliche—seize the day—is not only good advice for success in life, it’s also good advice for novelists who want to develop strong characters.
Case in point: I recently worked on a book where the MacGuffin had gone missing, through assumedly nefarious doings by unknown antagonists. That’s a fine setup; the MacGuffin was something the main character cared deeply about, and it served as credible stakes for inciting the main character to action.
The author, rightly, aimed to create a situation where this main character (let’s call her Meredith for clarity’s sake), would go to great lengths to recover the MacGuffin and win the day. However, the author wanted (also rightly) to make Meredith an interesting, multi-dimensional character.
This is where things went wrong.
You see, the author saddled Meredith with a bad relationship, a marriage to an unfeeling, unsympathetic, and controlling husband. Roger, we’ll call him, didn’t give one thin damn about the MacGuffin, didn’t care at all for the anxiety that Meredith was suffering because her precious MacGuffin was lost, and constantly belittled Meredith’s ideas and strategies for how she might get the MacGuffin back.
This is not in itself a bad character development strategy. It offers the potential for character growth, for showing Meredith coming into her own as she chases down that MacGuffin no matter what. It allows an opportunity for readers to root for her, as we watch her growing awareness of her own power and self-determination as a human being.
But the author attempted to create a situation where Meredith had no one to help her but herself, by constantly leaving avenues of investigation un-pursued, possible actions un-taken. He didn’t want to take the time to write the scenes showing her doing those things and having them fail, so he simply left them un-pursued.
The reason for this passivity was always that Meredith was afraid of what Roger (or frankly, anyone else in the novel) might think of her. Was she being silly, for wanting this MacGuffin back so much? Would the cops laugh at her if she called them for help? Did she dare bother the neighbors to ask if they had seen anyone strange at her house?
In every case, the author made poor Meredith opt for preserving other people’s opinions of her (which couldn’t have been that great to begin with) rather than pursuing the goal she really wanted. The author, in attempting to force Meredith into a situation where she had to take control, instead showed that Meredith was passive and weak beyond all possible expectation, blowing with the changing winds of other people’s attitudes.
I’m sure he didn’t mean to, but that’s what he showed.
It would be one thing if she was like that in the first few chapters, but then got over it and started doing something. I kept waiting for Meredith to tell someone—anyone!—to stuff it and get out of her way. But she never did.
Poor, poor Meredith, she never did a darned thing to recover her MacGuffin. So when the MacGuffin more or less fell back into her lap at the end of the book (gotta have that happy ending, you know!), I wasn’t emotionally moved at all. After all, Meredith hadn’t done anything to deserve getting it back. She was just as sad and pathetic as she had been on page one.
It didn’t make for good characterization, nor did it make for a satisfying story.
July 10, 2009 17:07 UTC
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