When I first began writing fiction, my characters tended to be too passive. Horrible things happened to them, but they never knew exactly what to do. When they did react, they reacted too little.
A student in my college creative writing class had the same problem. His story began with a father losing his toddler son to a senseless murder. The next scene skipped forward a couple of years without ever showing how the father reacted emotionally to this harrowing event. The father, adrift, focused on other things. The father only occasionally thought back vaguely to the “bad years,” with parsimonious allusions to the shattering event that must have transformed his life.
To say that the author wasted an opportunity is an understatement. When characters suffer emotionally, readers sympathize, and sympathy builds an emotional bond between characters and readers.
Sympathy aside, suffering is motivational fuel. Suffering characters act. They cannot help but act. The student in my creative writing class had not just wasted energy. He had motivational rocket fuel, but instead of using it, he had figuratively stored it away in his garage.
Not only did he waste energy. By separating the character from his traumatic ordeal, he prevented the character from seeming three dimensional and real. A suffering character may not do the right thing or the rational thing but he will do something.
The father could have started a support group or tracked down the murderer in a vigilante quest for revenge. He might have become a raging alcoholic. Instead the character remained adrift like a sailboat without any wind, but there was no reason that the sailboat should not have been surging forward at a breakneck pace.
But does a character really need to be active to be interesting? The popular fantasy author Brandon Sanderson said that active characters are irresistible to readers. According to him, that is one reason that a villain can add so much energy to a story. Villains tend to make big moves. They murder. The betray. They bully. They manipulate. They tell outrageous lies. We may not like them, but we cannot help but respond to them, especially if they are plausibly drawn.
What motivates a villain? What turns an Anakin Skywalker into a Darth Vader? One prompt is being tormented by nightmares in which his wife Amidala dies in childbirth. Anakin solidifies his turn to the dark side after he helplessly watches his mother die. What causes Othello in the play by William Shakespeare to murder his wife? He erroneously believes she has cheated and suffers from painful jealousy.
Active heroes or protagonists are also compelling. They make hard decisions. They may lie for a good cause or break the law or rescue a kid from a burning house while disfiguring themselves with burns in the process.
Some characters – and people – are naturally more active than others, but that is not the whole truth. Even ordinarily passive characters have the potential to be active if the dramatic heat is turned up high enough.
What makes a passive character active? What makes real people go out of their way to influence the world around them even if it means instigating conflict, annoying the hell out of others, or overcoming incredible obstacles?
Characters who will endure the fires of hell or try to move mountains in order to accomplish a goal are usually the characters who have suffered horribly – and the more they have suffered, the more driven they are to make changes.
Anyone who is alive and conscious cannot help but react to terrible pain. When I stub my toe, I cannot remain impassive. If someone is with me when it happens they will probably hear me gasp or curse. I will lean toward my injury. I will close my eyelids tight. Emotional pain can be every bit as excruciating, and like physical pain it cries out for remedy.
Suffering — whether in the past or present – is the key to creating characters who move stories forward in big ways, and how they move it forward is depends upon what kind of person they are.
Some characters are already burdened with a traumatic past when they take the stage, such as detective Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs. She. interrogates the serial killer Hannibal Lecter in order to predict the moves of another serial killer that she is trying to stop.
The desire to stop a serial killer from murdering innocent people is a compelling enough motive in itself to carry a story, but beneath the surface of a detective just doing her job is a deeper and more poignant motivation.
Hannibal questions Clarice in return for answering her questions and uncovers the devastating childhood experience in which she was forced to watch lambs being slaughtered and despite her desperate efforts to save one of them, they all died. Her motive to save innocent victims is not just professional. It is personal. Dramatically speaking, that makes all the difference between ordinary gasoline and rocket fuel.
What is true in fiction is often true in real life. I rarely move forward when I am happy. When everything is going well, I cling to my safe routines and avoid trying anything new.
It is during the moments of destabilization triggered by suffering that I grasp into unknown places in a quest for balance, that I reach out for a branch, something, anything to break my fall. I long for homeostasis, regularity, a new harmony – and if the old harmony is gone, I have no choice but to move forward even if I would ordinarily prefer to do nothing.
It is important to remember, in both writing and living, that no experience needs to be wasted, and that pain, whether physical or emotional, means movement – and that how we move determines who we are, and who we will become.
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