You have three characters you’ve been writing about – the child, the grown-up and the person in disguise. Perhaps you based them on people you know. Or maybe you made them up from scratch but have been getting to know them better just through writing about them.
In this Lesson I’m going to make a suggestion about how you can stop your characters being one-dimensional.
I don’t just mean one-dimensional in terms of space. I don’t mean they are flat, like cartoons. Lots of cartoon characters are far from one-dimensional. Think of Peanuts or Doonesbury.
One-dimensional characters are often flat in terms of time. They don’t have any history.
Write a one paragraph description of the fingernails of each of your three characters – the child, the grown-up and the person in disguise.
When you’ve finished the description, scroll down.
This next exercise takes a little bit of setting up. Bear with me.
For this exercise, you’re going to take your adult character away from the story you’ve been writing, and get to know them in a completely different situation.
I don’t know where you’re from, or what culture you’re familiar with, so I’m going to generalise here.
Your adult character has just been to a wedding. Someone they know has just got married. The newlyweds and their guests have moved somewhere on to the reception, or party, or just to continue the day. Your character could now be inside a church hall or outside on a beach or anywhere. There are lots of people around then, but they are on their own when you start describing them.
What happens is this – someone starts playing some music that, when it gets played at gatherings after weddings, usually gets everyone up and dancing. At English wedding receptions, this would be something like ‘Dancing Queen’ by ABBA. Maybe where you are it’s also ABBA, maybe it’s something else. (And maybe there isn’t dancing after people have got married. In which case, replace dancing with something that most people at the party would come together to be involved with.)
The exercise is this – write a description of exactly what your character does at the moment when all the other people at the wedding are getting up to dance (or do something else).
When you’ve finished the description, scroll down.
I’d now like you to get your Exercise 13 and Exercise 14, and lay them side by side.
You’ve described the grown-up’s fingernails in Exercise 13, and you’ve described them at a moment of mild crisis in Exercise 14.
You’ve created a tiny significant detail and a big significant action.
Both of them help us to know your character better. But do they do this as efficiently as they can? Do they add depth.
It all comes down to Time
What you have in front of you are two ways of writing about time. The first extends back in time. It is about how a character is.
The grown-up’s fingernails are the result of how they have been living. Let’s say it takes a month to grow back nails that have been bitten down. The fingernails reveal at least a month of that person’s life. They may also include what could be forensic evidence. Perhaps they smell of some onions they peeled, or the nail polish is chipped.
The second way of writing about time, Exercise 14, comes down to one moment. It is about what a character does.
Now, my suggestion is this –
If you write so that what a character is and what a character does simply confirm one another, your characters will be flat.
For example, let’s say in Exercise 13 you described your character’s nails as badly bitten, ragged at the edges. And, following on from this, in Exercise 14 you describe how, at the moment everyone started dancing, your character felt ashamed and went away.
There is no gap between the tiny significant detail and the big significant action.
Let’s take a different example. Let’s say that in Exercise 13 you still described your character’s nails as badly bitten, ragged at the edges. But then in Exercise 14, you describe how, at the moment everyone stated dancing, your character runs to the centre of the action and begins to dance extravagantly – calling on others to join them.
There is a gap – and into that gap the reader can start throwing their speculations.
Let’s take one final example. An opposite example. Let’s say that in Exercise 13 you described your character’s nails as perfectly manicured. In fact, let’s say that they are the rest of a trip to the nail salon and are glittery and ready to party. But then in Exercise 14, you describe how, at the moment everyone started dancing, your character felt ashamed and went away.
There again is a gap. Time has played a part in bringing a contradiction between what a character is (party-ready) and what they do (not party). Perhaps your character came to the wedding all dressed up, full of joy, but heard a devastating piece of news. That’s why they don’t dance.
Often, when creating a character, beginning writers will write so that all the tiny details the reader knows about them fit neatly with the big actions they perform.
Short stories are all about creating gaps. Gaps of expectation. Gaps of understanding. It’s for this reason that they can be short but can expand so far in the reader’s mind.
Let’s do one more Exercise.
In Driving, your two main characters, the child and the grown-up, have just had the even worse thing happen to them. Then, in Arriving, your person in disguise has just turned up and offered them help.
For the sake of this exercise, your two characters don’t want to accept the person in disguise’s help – because they are suspicious of them.
In order to gain their trust, the person in disguise takes off their disguise. You must vividly show the reader how they go from having one appearance to another appearance.
The reader already knows that the person in disguise was laying some kind of trap for the child and the grown-up. You don’t need to emphasise that. What you need to do is have the person as they take off their disguise reveal things to the reader about who they are. You can describe their fingernails, their hair, their skin.
Read ZZ Packer’s story ‘Brownies‘.
Think about the gaps that ZZ Packer opens up between the characters, between what the characters know about their situation and the reality of their situation (as close as we can come to that).