As regular readers know, every other month I try to address problems I come across in various manuscripts. Many of these deal with pitfalls in characterization so dismal that I believe they constitute a form of abuse committed by authors against their poor creations. These crimes can include instances of neglect wherein an author deprives her characters of careers, interests, hobbies or intelligent thought. Other authorial actions are more subtle, such as arranging for her protagonists to become clueless plot-zombies or giving them limited reasoning ability, which renders them TSTL.
But there is another form of cruelty perpetrated by authors on their poor characters.
Binky stood on his verandah, gazing out over the fine houses of Savannah. At the edge of the city he saw the blinking fires of the mass of General Sherman’s army. The Union general aimed to take his beautiful home town. Most likely Sherman would burn it to the ground as he’d laid waste to every other town and plantation that stood in his way.
Where did that leave Binky’s dance this evening? He’d invited Captain Brutus, but the handsome cavalryman wouldn’t be able to sneak through the picket line to attend. Damn Yankees—they ruined everything—even the social life of other damn Yankees like Brutus himself.
Binky scowled at the unfairness of it. He’d planned this Christmas cotillion specially to be able to showcase his skill at The Lancers Quadrille. Surely Brutus would have enjoyed the sight of Binky’s footwork, as he’d always excelled at dancing. Thinking on Brutus, he moved through the steps. Perhaps Brutus would come after all. Maybe they could slip away into the chill December night and he could give Brutus an early Christmas present.
Oh, Binky, no! How can you stand there with the Union Army on your doorstep and your lover in the direct line of fire and think of nothing but your Christmas party? What happened to the big picture?
And yet, I can see exactly how it all went down.
The author, infatuated by the idea of the American Civil War, decided to set a book during that time period. The costumes! The drama of brother against brother! The blue and the gray!
I know what you’re thinking—that I’m going to say Binky’s problems arise from being unjustly cast in a wallpaper historical. But that’s not so. Is it plausible that there existed in Civil War-era Savannah a gay guy as clueless as our Binky? Sure, why not? Realism isn’t the issue in this particular column. Even if every single detail of Binky’s historical foray were correct, he’d still be the victim of auctorial abuse. Why?
Because in giving Binky no thoughts or ideas that are unrelated to his own gratification, the author has unjustly created Binky shallow.
Oftentimes when people discuss this facet of writing, they talk about flat characters versus round characters. But that only addresses the issue of one-dimensional stereotypes, such as the Hardened Criminal or the Loving Mother. A character can be flat without being vapid. Because they are functionaries, rather than people, these characters just end up being predictable and therefore forgettable.
I suggest that a character can be perfectly rounded and still be shallow beyond all imagining because shallow people do exist. It’s just that nobody wants to spend hours with them on purpose because though they have emotions and an interior life, their relentless self-obsession keeps them from fully interacting with the world. It’s not that shallow characters (or shallow people) lack insight—they are very intimate with themselves—what they lack is perception.
That’s why creating shallow or vapid protagonists is a problem. Your protagonist is the lens through which every other aspect of the book is revealed. A character with no ability to perceive the feelings of others and no ability to notice larger events in his world can relate nothing to a reader beyond his own feelings. That lack of scope handicaps the author hoping to create a broad, compelling story.
So how does one give a character greater perception and therefore depth? First, you’ve got to figure out if he’s shallow in the first place. Here’s a little diagnostic exercise:
Does your character view the other players in his tale as valid individuals, or are other characters seen only as accessories or resources?
Binky gave Brutus the once-over. He had nice bones and an even nicer Jaguar key fob. In his mind’s eye, he saw himself riding in the passenger seat of that swell car driven by a handsome man.
Binky gave Brutus the once-over. He had nice bones and a charming smile. Binky couldn’t help but notice that Brutus still carried his car keys, though he’d been at the barbecue for twenty minutes already. Was he trying to show off his Jaguar fob? Or was he just preparing to make a quick getaway?
Notice how in the second example we come away curious about Brutus’ character, whereas in the first we only know that Binky likes Jaguars at least as much as he likes men—possibly more.
In conclusion, I suggest that encouraging characters to expand their mental territory to include perception of others can make the author’s job a lot easier—and make the character a lot more likable.
With that in mind, let’s go back to Civil War Binky:
Binky stood on his verandah, gazing out over the fine houses of Savannah. At the edge of the city he saw the blinking fires of the mass of General Sherman’s army. The Union general aimed to take his beautiful hometown. Most likely Sherman would burn it to the ground as he’d laid waste to every other town and plantation that stood in his way.
He wondered if Captain Brutus was out there somewhere among those faint lights, wearing Union blue and riding the picket line on the other side. Much as he hated Sherman, he could feel nothing but ambivalence for the soldiers up on the ridge. When the war started, everyone had been called home. Whether those homes happened to be in New York or Georgia determined the color of a man’s coat. That was all.
Binky knew this more than anyone.
Unwanted memories welled up in Binky’s mind—visions of Binky’s medical school days. It was Boston in the wintertime when he met the young cavalry officer. Dr. Canby always hosted a fine Christmas dance that and as his student Binky was obliged to attend, though Binky had never much liked social dances. He was awkward with women and stilted with men, so he lingered near the drinks table waiting for a chance to abscond.
Captain Brutus hadn’t been a captain then, just the nephew of Canby and a student of law. He’d been easy to talk to and pleasant to drink with. Late in the night, he’d braved the bitter December cold to walk Binky back to his room near the Common. There he’d shown Binky the steps of The Lancer’s Quadrille and those of another more intimate dance.
Binky had hoped to show Brutus Savannah one day. And now it seemed that in a few days time there would be no Savannah left to show.
He closed his eyes and prayed for his city just as he prayed for Brutus and every soul caught up in this terrible war.
As we can see, Binky isn’t doing anything different. He’s standing around thinking about life, but this contemplation conveys so much more about every aspect of their story.
I urge all authors to go ahead and allow your characters to explore life outside of immediate gratification. You’ll be glad you did.