The Art of Writing No. 16

Let me pursue this question of character complexity. What I said in the last blog was that those that people our pages, to be life-like, have to have shades of dark and light. There is a unique moral colour chart for everyone and it includes sin and evil. What is revealed it is a consequence of circumstance. So, even if you create a totally virtuous being as a character, he or she will only be believable against a backdrop of the mixed morality of those around him or her and similarly with a character who is wholly evil. Such completely exceptional natures must become a central focus to a novel or not be there at all. You just can’t sell a novel with a cast list where everyone is a monochrome figure. That is usually the stuff of comics, propaganda or puppetry. So think seriously about how you might explore right and wrong through the messy profiles that people actually have in life rather than by a crude simplification of character. To be enriched by the experience of a novel means that the reader leaves it believing they have had an experience which makes life more comprehensible and even a touch more manageable. A book is a vicarious and unique experience for each reader.
In Azimuth, one of my central characters kills frequently at first but over the course of the trilogy the regularity of death decreases as he gains a moral direction. Establishing this as main plot construct makes it attendant upon me to present him at first as a man in whom empathy for others is just a putative trait among many such as courage and honesty but one which grows through experience to dominate his profile. Each time he kills his internal conflict grows over his actions. To make this psychological tension vibrant, every death must be described uniquely, the nature of death itself explored and the impact on this character’s further experiences built in to the succeeding narrative. As readers we must not be able to predict when or, indeed, whether he will transcend his upbringing and gain enlightenment. Azimuth is a saga and has dozens of characters, from walk-on parts to those that affect the direction of the story line significantly. What I tried to do with each was provide enough ambiguity in the profile of each so that the maximum number of possible actions was open to every one of them. If you establish this as your modus operandi as an author, your plot becomes pregnant with continuous possibility. But if your characters are single trait ciphers, unpredictability  and tension will not haunt your pages.

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