Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Revealing Character

So as a follow up to my post about reading Orson Scott Card's book, I thought I'd talk a little bit about revealing character versus having a character growth arc.

I think, especially for childrens books, characters aren’t going to always have a huge growth arc because in childhood we’re always growing to new awareness, new life lessons, mastering new skills. In general, kids are more malleable, their growth more ongoing and continuous until they reach their adulthood. Then, dramatic or profound occurrences or situations are usually required to propel us adults toward change and growth.

In fact, I've heard it said that a book should be about a person's most profound and dramatic life experience. And I would argue that kids have so many, each coming rapidly on top of the other, that that doesn't necessarily apply to kid's fiction.

Which is why I was so struck by Card’s reminder that some characters are revealed rather than grow. But how do we resolve that with today’s reader (and agents and editors!) who tend to look for a growth arc of some sort? How can one satisfy that readers longing for an internal journey and yet remain true to our character's core if they don’t change significantly over the course of the book?

I think having the character come to terms with who they are, which is a form of personal growth, can also make for a satisfying growth arc. In order for a character to do that, they have to recognize who they are, they have to strip away all the pretenses—the persona they cloak themselves in—and meet themselves face to face. They sort of have to see themselves, warts (emotional scars) and all, and come to terms with that. So if they aren’t going to change, consider having them learn to accept who they are or their role in their family or school or whatever.

But that needs to be developed over the course of the entire book. We have to feel we know more about the character at the end of the book than we did at the beginning. Which makes sense since it is the crucible of hard choices that the character goes through that enables him to finally reach a higher level of understanding.

One really effective tool can be to peel back the layers of a character, like an onion, to reveal his innermost nature to the reader. By doing that in stages, it gives a sense of internal movement and forward momentum as the reader comes to learn more and more of the character.

If you think about it, there are things about all of us that we wish the world didn’t see, but is often plain to most people who know us well.

Then there are the things that only our best friend or close family members know or understand about us.

And finally, there are those parts of us that are so painful, we can hardly stand to admit them to ourselves. For some, facing these painful truths will cause the entire world to shift. For others, it will shift only a little bit, but in a vital way that helps us continue on.

So for Theo, in Book I, she was lonely, anyone could see that. (First Layer) And on some level she worried it was because she was doing something wrong, that she was lacking in some fundamental skill needed in order to form friendships. (Second Layer) But the thing she was terrified of acknowledging, was that she was so flawed, that something was so wrong with her that even her parents couldn’t muster up the emotional connection necessary to love their child. In fact, that’s part of what propels her to such huge risks, trying to earn their love. (Third Layer)

Of course, in the end, this is proved wrong and Theo learns her parents do value her more than she realized.

So while Theo didn’t change, her understanding of the world and her place in it and her value to others did.

And I think, to address another point that was brought up in the comments, it can be smart to mention in a synopsis or summary that the character is wrestling with trying to come to terms with a particular emotional issue so that it will be clear that there are two layers to the story.

And thus endeth today’s lesson….


Anonymous said...

Robin, I think so much of childhood IS finding out who we (they!) are, that this is the kind of change that makes so much sense. It's about defining your identity as connected to AND separate from those around you.

Good stuff!

Dave Johnson said...

This is so good - exactly what I need to help deepen my heroine in the next revision. Seems I need to read Card's book too.

Robin L said...

Yeah, Card's book is very worthwhile. And glad you guys found the info helpful!

Anonymous said...

I'm still really a child...and that helped me a lot. Thank you. It made me realize something about my writing and myself actually- intersting how those thigns can happen, huh? Again, Thank you!