If I move into a beautiful New England home with my beautiful family and on our first night, the walls run red with blood and a disconnected voice cries “Get out!”, I go to a hotel and move the next day.
I do not search for an explanation (or at least not that night). I do not instinctively head for the dusty attic, the dank dark basement or that rather nasty looking shed under the menacing weeping willow in the darkest corner of the back yard.
So when I read about characters doing just that in a novel or screenplay or watch actors do it at the movies, I find myself thinking they deserve whatever comes next because they are idiots. What the hell motivated them to have that stupid response? Out of the gate, I disconnect from the character.
Now, despite the title of this blog post, I am not suggesting that only my instincts should be followed in screenplays, novels, etc.—these would be damned short stories if everyone did—but rather it is a call to writers to help me, as a reader or viewer, understand why the character behaved the way he or she did. Until I do, I cannot really bond with the character.
This isn’t easy, but it is necessary.
Whenever a character responds to something or takes an action, you have to ask yourself, why did he or she do that? And over the course of your story, are all of that character’s choices consistent with his or her personal journey from before your story’s opening to its conclusion?
And as if that isn’t difficult enough, you then have to ask yourself, have I written the story in such a way that the audience can see the logic of the choices, even if only in hindsight?
This last point is crucial, because as writers, we often know or understand things about our characters that never make it to the page. Thus, while everything may seem completely consistent and logical to us, it may still be confusing to our audience, who is not privy to the machinations within the head of the writer god.
At the same time, you never want to spell it out for the audience, because then story reading or watching becomes too passive an exercise and the audience doesn’t engage. You need to feed your audience just enough information that it can begin to make inferences about your characters’ behaviours and so become connected with your characters.
The good news is that this is unlikely to happen in your first draft or at best, will happen in drips and drabs.
As you develop your story past draft one, you will find moments of inconsistency or more likely, your trusted readers and advisers will find inconsistencies. Take those in and mull them over. Odds are, fixing those issues will not require a major refocus of your story…just a heavy-brush rewrite. And your story will improve.
So if the walls run red with blood, a disconnected voice cries “Get out!” and your protagonist doesn’t, I better understand why.
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You’re so right about striking the balance of providing information without giving away too much, so that readers can enjoy the discovery of character. It’s like meeting someone for the first time; if they blather away everything about themselves, we’re likely to tune out. Or leap out the window. But discovering things about them through conversation and experience builds a foundation of friendship with people we meet — whether in real life or on the page.
I’m sorry, I tuned out after “You’re so right”