We need characters to do things. The more dramatic and exciting and heart-breaking, the better. But make no mistake, a character can’t simply do willy-nilly. In years of writing, I’ve learned the hard way the highest rule of character development:
There’s always a reason.
Now don’t think the reason has to be logical. Don’t make the mistake of thinking your character must react in a way that many, if not even most, people would agree with. Which leads me to part two of this all-mighty rule:
The reason must be consistent with who the character is.
We’ve all read and seen it, in our own work and in others. We become so fixated on a character behaving in a certain way that we forget who he or she is at their core.
Sure, it would be wonderful if Girl accepts Boy’s proposal. We know he’s a nice fellow, and we like him, and heck, so does she. We know this! But we also know that Girl has major abandonment issues and is terrified of having her heart broken, so when she declines Boy’s proposal and ruins her best chance at love, we are angry, maybe even furious, but we understand that this is what she would do. This is consistent with who she is and who we have come to know her to be. If she ran off with him and lived happily ever after at this point we’d feel a bit, well, confused. And anytime a reader steps mentally and emotionally away from a character to question his or her motivations, the magic fades.
I have a little trick when it comes to this. I imagine that every time my character does or says or thinks something, I’ll be subjected to a pop quiz to explain why (this might have something to do with being married to a teacher). It works every time, and with every character.
Now your turns. Anyone else spend time with a pesky character who did the right thing, instead of the right-for-them thing?
Conversely, I have absolutely no reason at all for posting this picture of the cheese blintzes we had for breakfast this morning except that I’ve been noticing a distinct lack of food images on this blog and feeling badly for it. The blintzes are a family recipe and a favorite (What I’d serve if I had a restaurant). If anyone wants it, let me know. I’ll be more than happy to post.