Monday, August 15, 2011
The Sagging Character
I’ve written blogs and taught workshops on “the sagging middle” which refers to the loss of momentum in the middle of your novel. The long stretch between the beginning and ending can sometimes become lackluster and boring to a reader when it’s not providing enough to drive the story forward. But plots aren’t the only thing that can sag. Characters you thought were dynamic can become dull because their focus is on the same problem, or the personality and character remains unchanged and they seem to go nowhere. So what can you do when a character disappoints you?
1.) Does the character’s backstory include opportunities to grow?
As you create a character, dig deep into the character’s past. Find flaws that can undermine her, a secret that can destroy her or her goal, an experience she desires, a relationship that affects her life, or a need she cannot face. All of these elements provide means to expand the characterization, to help the character change and to grow as a person. Let’s say the relationship that affects a woman's life is a friend’s child who needs a home. Fear of failure is a flaw that can undermine success. Her desired experience is to learn to play football. The need she can’t face is her mother’s approval. Think about these additions to your backstory and imagine how adding one or two can ignite your novel and move it forward to an exciting or fulfilling ending.
2.) Is Your Character Too Sweet? Too Agreeable?
Without conflict the novel and the characters are bland. Create decisive characters who believe in or value things they are unwilling to change. They will fight to attain or hold fast to the belief or value. When a character is always agreeable, nothing happens to add tension to the novel. Allow things to go wrong. Your character plans the perfect picnic only to have it rain or to place ther event in an area with swarms of bees or ants. When she calls her friend for help, her friend doesn’t come to her aid. Give her a bad hair day or a bad attitude day. These are common for real people and you want your characters to be real.
3.) Does your character have a quirk or an obsession?
A quirk can add humor to your novel and liven your story. Let’s say the quirk is the character loves clothing from the seventies even when the style is inappropriate. An obsession can add tension when it affects the character’s ability to function in various situations. The need for neatness can be an obsession since it means everything must be lined up and in order. Everything put back where it belongs. Imagine this in a relationship with a laid back man and a neat-obsessive woman.
4) Is your character predictable?
Don’t dump all the backstory into the characterization immediately. Hold back a secret, a flaw, a need and bring it out when the story needs a “shot in the arm.” Most people are somewhat predictable. Our friends and family know what we like and what we value so when we make choices, they can predict how we will respond or know what we will chose. Readers do the same. Yet a character must change and grow in a novel to add depth and realism. We all change but it’s a slow process. In a novel, the change comes more quickly but with reasonable motivation for change that makes it acceptable. When you introduce a new problem to the novel, the character must now grapple and learn to handle the situation. This adds depth to the character and doesn’t allow them to sag.
I’m sure if you think about this you’ll come up with other ways to bolster the character and add dynamics to the story. These four ideas give you a start.