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Great characters are like origami

At the start of a book, readers face the book’s characters in much the same way as the writer faces the book itself: as a blank page. The characters are flat and featureless. Readers don’t know who these people are, what they can do, what they care about, what pisses them off. We don’t know any of that stuff, until you show us.

Certain broad strokes—and fairly irrelevant ones—such as name, age, gender, height, weight, and socio-economic class can be established quickly, and I would argue that you should do so. While these are surface features that don’t relate to the substance of your characters, surface features do help the reader to picture the characters and keep straight who’s who. So do that first, and do it quickly.

But once you’re into the substance of a character, once you’re showing us features of a person that really matter to how they think and act, complications arise.

Static personality features

A person may have many substantive qualities. Positive ones, like bravery, intelligence, chivalry, kindness, generosity, as well as negatives like cowardice, selfishness, arrogance, and cruelty. These are essentially fixed for the character, and we don’t expect them to change.

But you can’t show them all at once. Let’s say you have a protagonist who is smart, well off without being filthy rich, generous towards his friends and family, but with very little tolerance for idiots and people who make poor choices. As characters go, that’s a pretty well-rounded description. There’s a lot there for you to work with in the course of your novel. But you can’t show us all this stuff at once. It’s just too much.

I suppose you could create some kind of bizarre, tortured scene in which all of these come into play, but I doubt it would feel natural. You have to spread it out over several scenes, letting each scene touch on one or maybe two personality features, until we have the whole picture. Further, let these scenes be natural to the story, ones that arise in clear relationship to the plot, so they don’t stick out like sore thumbs. The last thing you want is readers thinking to themselves “Ah, this seemingly irrelevant scene must exist in order to show the guy’s generosity.”

Dynamic personality features

The other category of personality features are the ones that do change. These are the ones that constitute your novel’s character arc, in which your protagonist undergoes some kind of personal growth. Often this growth relates to those negative personality attributes, and by addressing them through the novel’s character arc, the protagonist becomes a better person by the end of the story.

For example, maybe that character described above learns to have some tolerance for “idiots and people who make poor choices.” You could involve him in the lives of people who are not well off at all, or you could attack his own financial situation. In the end he could come to see that not everyone has it as easy as he does (or did), and would learn that what he thought was evidence of bad choices by people he perceived as idiots, wasn’t. What he was actually seeing were reasonable and sensible people making the best choices they could under very difficult circumstances. Sometimes life deals you a bad hand, and your best options still suck.

You can’t show character arcs all at once either. You can’t have your protagonist be short tempered with the downtrodden for the first 20 chapters, then suddenly have him switch in chapter 21. Ask anyone who has had to change their eating habits to fend off heart disease, or who has had to overcome a substance abuse problem, and they’ll tell you: these things don’t happen overnight. Neither can we expect people’s substantive personality traits to change overnight. You need to craft a sequence of scenes which sets the stage for the change, creates an epiphany moment for the character, and then shows the new thinking taking hold as the plot progresses.

Many steps make a path

Why are great characters like origami? Because origami models and characters in novels both start from blank paper, and both take many steps to get where they’re going.

In origami, you don’t go from flat square to crane in one step. Every step, every fold, adds complexity and refines the model’s shape. Some steps are simple mountain and valley folds. Some steps are tricky petal folds, squash folds, or outside reverse folds, but in the end, you have a beautiful crane.

In writing, you don’t go from blank page to fully realized character in one step. Every experience you subject the character to adds complexity and interest. Every realization a character makes about his life, the world, or other people is another scene—another fold or crease. Some scenes will be simple and straightforward to construct, others will bedevil you, but take the time to get them right. In the end, you have a beautifully realized character who is a joy to write for and a joy to read.

March 12, 2010 17:42 UTC

Tags: character, personality, character arc

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Posted by Theresa Milstein on March 14, 2010 03:15 UTC

You make a great case for character development. Recently, I revisited a manuscript because it had been nagging me that the protagonist changed too quickly, so I had to do some serious rewriting.

Posted by KMLockwood on March 20, 2011 19:49 UTC

An intelligent piece with an engaging central image. Thank you for posting this.

Posted by Steve Humphreys on March 21, 2011 02:25 UTC

I have written two “How To” books about Careers on sale through Amazon. I am looking for ways to promote them, (Like on Twitter) but my true love is fiction.

I currently have been writing a fiction book. Your article “Great characters are like origami” mirrors back to me exactly how I am going to develop each character. Thanks.

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