PEERING OUT FROM UNDER A ROCK: Character Breakthrough

by Normandie Fischer, @WritingOnBoard

Holiday planning and travel shoveled silence on top of my writing time again. In spite of that—or maybe because of the down time and those moments of writing when I couldn’t, of note taking and thinking—I had a breakthrough.

(Isn’t that a delicious word? Breakthrough. Breaking through the confusion. Breaking through the sludge of exhaustion.)

Until then, I hadn’t realized I had a major story question that needed answering. I was pantsing along (as opposed to filling in plot holes ahead of time), writing in snatches, taking those notes, and thinking about the scene in front of me. But because a story written that way tends to stall during down time, I turned to the tried-and-true, outline-so-you-know-what’s-coming-next method that might let me actually move forward.

I already knew my bad guy would have an ah-ha moment, but self-awareness wasn’t his strong suit. And putting someone else first? He’d never done it. Everything he did had a selfish motivation, and consequences to others mattered not at all.

So how did I imagine he’d make this out-of-character decision? I couldn’t just toss in a deus ex machina to rescue him or give him a sudden finding-Jesus moment.

You’ve probably run into a contrived plot device where some unexpected power or event shows up to save the day. Deus ex machina literally means “god from the machine,” a device where a new character flies to the rescue (where did he come from?) or where something unexpected and unexplained happens so that the story problem is miraculously fixed.

I’m not suggesting that miracles don’t happen or that people can’t experience a radical change of attitude and behavior. But these changes have to make sense.

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Our characters should face challenges that either propel their growth or stall it. Many antagonists stall, which is why they get to play the bad guys. Most protagonists grow and change, which is why they get the heroic roles, even if they’re merely the hero of their own life. But whatever a character’s role, there has to be something in his history or his personality that will make his shift (or his stagnation) believable. As authors, our job is to set the stage and provide enough background that readers will think ah ha! instead of huh?

 Remember A Tale of Two Cities? If Dickens hadn’t deepened the character of Sydney Carton to show his hopeless love for our heroine, we’d never have understood the power of his sacrifice—and we’d have felt cheated. But because Dickens fleshed out this bad guy, we rooted for him and agonized for him when he offered himself for the sake of true love. Dickens thus turned an anti-hero into a hero.

Back to my stalled work in progress.I had a beginning and an outcome, along with the shift in circumstances that would set the stage for character change. BUT, an about-face for my villain would require more. There had to be something about him that would propel readers into a sigh and an of course he’d choose that route.

All good stories show character growth and change, but not all have characters who make a truly radical shift in attitude and behavior from bad to good (or good to bad). We love the thief turned hero, the murderer who saves a child’s life, the careless vagabond who morphs into family man. But if we’re going to write these characters into our story, we need to give them a reason for the shift, just as Dickens did for Sydney.

I try to figure these things out when I create character sheets, but this time I’d obviously left a gaping hole or two. I’d figured out what had lured my antagonist to villainy. Now I needed to know what in him (or his past) might propel him to leave his hedonistic life. What about him might allow self-sacrifice?

I’m happy to say that my other books worked their way to character completion in a much more orderly fashion. I wrote; they spoke; the picture revealed itself. But if one must take time off for whatever reason, it’s serendipitous to have that time off present a key piece of information.

Aiming for the gold here, right?

Twilight Christmas

Two orphans. A big sister with Down Syndrome. And a community in need of miracles.

It’s up to ten-year-old Louis to protect Linney from the bad men. He knows what can happen to handicapped kids. He’s seen it before.

Only, it’s getting harder and harder to keep her warm and safe in this old storage barn as Christmas celebrations unfold around them.

And then there’s Annie Mac and her crew, who are involved in the pageant excitement. So is Lieutenant Clay Dougherty, her kids’ faux-father and the man who still makes her yearn for a whole lot more than she’s comfortable offering, especially when she’s plagued by crazy-making nightmares.

So many questions: Can Louis save his sister? And will Annie Mac find the peace she needs? What about poor Clay and the other Beaufort folk?

Normandie Fischer studied sculpture in Italy before receiving her BA, summa cum laude with special honors in English. Known for her women’s fiction—Becalmed (2013), Sailing out of Darkness (2013), and Heavy Weather (2015)—she ventured into the realm of romantic suspense with the release of Two from Isaac’s House. In early 2016, a novella, From Fire into Fire, will continue the Isaac House saga. Normandie and her husband spent a number of years on board their 50-foot ketch, Sea Venture, sailing in the Sea of Cortez, Mexico. They now live in coastal North Carolina, where she takes care of her aging mother. You can find Normandie on her websiteFacebook, and Amazon.