Whether you are writing about a character we will fall in love with, or whether you’re showing us a character we’ll all love to hate, the most effective character is the one that is changed by the story he has to tell.
Begin with a resistance to change. This allows for something interesting to happen, what we often call the inciting incident. We’re familiar with the ‘disaster befalls him,’ beginning, but sometimes the inciting incident is actually a good thing.
In Terms of Endearment, Emma announces she’s pregnant. Aurora will be a grandmother in six months. Aurora reacts as if her lifeline has been cut. Sweet candies are required to bring her around, and even then, this is not good news. Her boyfriends will see her differently—as a woman past her prime. She’s resistant to this view of herself, and she’s pretty sure they will be too.
Immediately, conflict is established.
What is required of your character is a change—in perspective, in attitude, in behavior. It doesn’t happen all at once—most of us take time to adjust to a change in circumstances, to accept a new status quo. It’s not until an even greater causative event comes barreling along some pages later, that your character stops backpedaling and looks for a way out of this mess.
That’s when you, the writer, are deep in plot. You need a series of events to show how all these changes-- perspective, attitude, and behavior, can realistically occur. You write us a good story.
Over the course of the story, your character becomes more receptive, more flexible, more tolerant. In the second half of the story, more and more frequently toward the end, even as he faces larger, more daunting obstacles, he receives validation for his new approach to problems.
And in the final pages, he gets the girl, makes the grade, wins the race, whatever it takes to complete the emotional arc that is begun when your character tackles a problem at the start of the story. He comes to a first conclusion about what he wants, and adjusts it when it doesn’t quite fit his needs, and probably continuously adjusts it throughout the story.
It’s a funny thing how change in a fictional character parallels change in an actual person. Just as Aurora, who digs in her heels and fights it the whole distance, finally embraces her role in her daughter’s life, and her new reality, out of love for her daughter.
Her story continues in The Evening Star.
Audrey Couloumbis is the Newbery Honor-winning author of Getting Near to Baby. She sometimes writes sad stories with a happy ending, and she's published by St.Martin's Press, G.P. Putnam, and Random House. Look for her books at your favorite bookstore.
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