Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Tests of Character

What does your character think is important?

All right, now, what does your character really think is important? For what, or whom, would they drop everything and run into battle (figuratively or literally)? For what reason would they disregard personal safety, need for food, etc.?

In my novel in progress, there is a point when the main character falls abruptly ill. This event galvanizes all kinds of people around him, and it's the kind of event that will show what these people consider important.
  • The main character's mother cares about nothing more than saving his life - not particularly surprising.
  • The mother's servant takes her wishes as his own, of course, and he has medical training that would cause him to act - but he discovers he cares very deeply for the main character and drops everything, hardly eating or sleeping for two days in order to get him through his illness.
  • The main character's brother, by contrast, figures everybody is caring for the main character but nobody has noticed that there was something he was supposed to do, and now nobody is available to do it. He cares far more about the political situation than he does about his brother.
When we hit a catastrophic event in our stories, or even just a deeply important gesture (such as a touch from a person one is attracted to), it provides us with fantastic opportunities to reveal character. In fact, it's worth trying to achieve just this sort of test of character during the course of a story. We're encouraged to ask, "What is the worst thing that could happen from this characters point of view?" and then to try to have that happen. Why? Not only is it dramatic, but it provides a test of character and allows the character to become more deeply human (whether he/she is in fact human or not), as well as giving that character a unique opportunity to direct the plot. Tests of character are where plot and character come together to drive the plot.

If you're in the midst of writing a story, look for places where events could conspire to test your character and cut through to what he or she considers most important. If you're planning a story but have more information about your character than about the plot, look through your character's personality for places of weakness, those funny-bones or Achilles heels that could really use testing. Then use that information to guide your plot choices. Oddly enough, you don't even need to know how the character would react to being tested in that way - only that they should be tested. You can then wait and figure out what happens when you get there.

It's something to think about.

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