Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Strength-Building: Part III, the Catastrophies

In the last couple of posts, we have reviewed a couple of ways to build stronger characters in writing.

Here's another one.

Like the people we meet in our lives, perhaps the most important way we understand them is to see how they respond in horrible, unimaginable situations.  When we, as writers, build believable and understandable characters in our writing and then put them in horrible conflicts, do their reactions make sense?

Of course, we can continue the discussion from here, exploring how characters can push a plot or a plot can motivate characters, but my specific point here is how do we explore and understand characters through their struggles?

I believe that their reactions should make sense.  The writer should develop and create a breathing, believable person whose reactions make sense.

You may be thinking that many characters are inherently unpredictable or crazy.  Then, as the writers and the creators, we should be able to create characters that make sense in their lunacy.  Take Chuck Palahniuk's, Fight Club, for one.  The lunacy of the main character may be a surprise (which is part of the gimmick of the novel, certainly), but it all fits together and the character makes sense.

When, however, we create characters that have bad things happen, their reactions should tell more about how they are as people.  Just like the people we know in real life, the characters' reactions should reveal more about who they are.

Here I will turn to Graham Greene of course.  In The End of the Affair, Sarah breaks off an affair with Maurice without any real explanation, choosing to return to her husband.  Maurice faces the loss with anger and bitterness:

“I became aware that our love was doomed; love had turned into a love affair with a beginning and an end. I could name the very moment when it had begun, and one day I knew I should be able to name the final hour. When she left the house I couldn't settle to work. I would reconstruct what we had said to each other; I would fan myself into anger or remorse. And all the time I knew I was forcing the pace. I was pushing, pushing the only thing I loved out of my life. As long as I could make believe that love lasted I was happy; I think I was even good to live with, and so love did last. But if love had to die, I wanted it to die quickly. It was as though our love were a small creature caught in a trap and bleeding to death; I had to shut my eyes and wring its neck.” 
― Graham GreeneThe End of the Affair

With Maurice's loss of Sarah, he finds he has nothing left.

“The sense of unhappiness is so much easier to convey than that of happiness. In misery we seem aware of our own existence, even though it may be in the form of a monstrous egotism: this pain of mine is individual, this nerve that winces belongs to me and to no other. But happiness annihilates us: we lose our identity.” 
― Graham GreeneThe End of the Affair

Long story short, Maurice discovers that Sarah made a promise with God to save Maurice's life.  When Maurice begins to understand Sarah's faithfulness to him and to God, Maurice can have only one reaction as a character:

His struggle is bitter and painful, and his loss is complete like only a Greek tragedy can be.

To create such convincing and gut-wrenchingly wonderful characters is difficult.  Not only is the writing--in the descriptions and thoughts--convincing, but the actions and progression of Maurice's anger makes sense.

Read this one.  It's a good one.

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