RSS Feed

Tag Archives: Lois Lowry

Building Complex Characters

Posted on
Cain and Abel - Building Complex Characters - Compelling Characters - Novel Conclusions - literary blog - writing tips

Cain and Abel by Titian via Wikimedia Commons

This post contains affiliate links that help this blog continue to be awesome.

One of the best things about good stories is great characters.  In a memorable story, the main character shares the stage with a cast of other similarly complex characters.  We don’t need to have 20 super complex characters, unless you’re writing some kind of epic, but we should definitely have more than one, and almost definitely more than 2 or 3.  Side note/disclaimer: I don’t like stories about man vs. nature where it’s literally just one dude/dudette against the elements, a la Robinson Crusoe, Castaway, Hatchet, etc.; those stories are great naptime inducers.

How do we create these complex characters?

  1. Each of your main ensemble characters should have their own character arc.  That means they have an objective or three.  This is even better if their objectives clash directly with the main character’s objectives – plot fireworks!  For example, in Roald Dahl’s Matilda, Matilda’s little buddy Lavendar wants to be just as cool as the upper grade kids, and this character arc has some serious unintended consequences for Matilda.  When Matilda is falsely accused of being behind one of Lavendar’s pranks (a prank she set up to get in with the cool kids), the ensuing events are set in motion with no turning back.
  2. Be very strategic in your choice of details.  Although it’s very important to include details about our characters (this is something we really must do), a little goes a long way.  In Lois Lowry’s The Giver, a telling detail about main character Jonas’s best friend Asher does double duty, not only revealing a bit about Asher, but contrasting it directly with Jonas:  “Jonas was careful about language, not like his friend, Asher, who talked too fast and mixed things up, scrambling words and phrases until they were barely recognizable and very funny.”  Jonas’s attention to detail and thoughtfulness are thrown into sharp relief when held up next to his sloppy, funny best friend.  (For more on detail, check out last week’s post about character tags).
  3. Dynamic situations.  Situations where characters are forced to reevaluate their stances or their past decisions – these are some great character-revealing situations.  Severus Snape, of Harry Potter fame, presents a fantastic example.  When he finds out that the woman he’s loved since childhood – Harry’s mother, Lily – is in danger, he becomes a double agent.  Even though he carries a deep dislike of Harry, carried over from his hatred of Harry’s father, he changes the course of many lives in his time as a double agent, Harry’s especially.
  4. Your plot should not be able to stay the same if you removed one of the characters.  The characters and plot ought to be so intertwined that you cannot remove a character without affecting the plot.  Can you imagine Top Gun without Maverick?  Not so much.  If you can remove a character without affecting the plot, that character probably didn’t belong in the first place.

How else can we create complex characters?  Who are some of your favorite complex characters?

Related Links

Advertisements

The Power of Revealing Details

Posted on
The Giver

Courtesy of bn.com

Correctly placed details can reveal more about a character, setting, or situation than paragraphs of exposition — showing versus telling.  In revision, it’s important for us to scour every scene, every paragraph for ways to show instead of tell.  Sometimes I find that, in the frenetic rush to get the story out, my first drafts tend to be lots of telling and need to be cleaned up pretty dramatically to show more instead.

In Lois Lowry‘s The Giver, Lowry builds a fantatstic new world in barely a chapter, and she’s able to accomplish this feat with her solid use of revealing detail, as in this passage in the first chapter:

Lily considered, and shook her head.  “I don’t know.  They acted like… like…”

“Animals?” Jonas suggested.  He laughed.

“That’s right,” Lily said, laughing too.  “Like animals.”

Neither child knew what the word meant, exactly, but it was often used to describe someone uneducated or clumsy, someone who didn’t fit in.

Without telling us directly how different this society is, Lowry accomplishes this in just a few lines by showing an example of daily life without giving it to us in straight exposition.   The conversation and comment come across casually, almost as an aside, which also shows us something about the world of The Giver and the attitudes of those within it.

Whenever I revise, I try, though not always successfully, to cut as much exposition as I can without losing the thread of the story.  Which revision tricks do you use to clean up your fiction?

P.S.  Check out what the NY Times has to say about Lois Lowry’s new book Son here and how “in many ways, Lowry invented the contemporary young adult dystopian novel.”

%d bloggers like this: