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Extending Characters’ Lives

Monday, December 4, 2006

We interrupt this Christmas programming for the following message: A couple of weeks ago, in the Subplots discussion I wrote about three areas Don Maass suggests as ways to create depth and subplot in our stories. One of these is RANGE which can be a hard concept to grasp.

Last night, after reading a couple of essays in Flirting with Pride & Prejudice: Fresh Perspectives on the Original Chick-Lit Masterpiece, I came across this quote by E.M. Forster: “All the Jane Austen characters are ready for an extended life which the scheme of her books seldom requires them to lead, and that is why they lead their actual lives so satisfactorily.” (Yes, you caught me, I was reading a book of literary criticism essays for pleasure.)

I will admit, I had to read this several times before I figured out what it meant. But once I did, it was a bit of an epiphany moment—I finally realized why I spend so much time with my characters outside of the events of the story I’m writing. Why I want to know everything that’s happened to them in their lives before the opening pages and why I want to know where they will be five, ten, or fifty years after the story ends. Because I am a character-driven writer, there are times when I simply feel like I’m just letting someone else tell me a story—something that happened to her one day as she went about her normal life, rather like listening to a friend. But for that story to have meaning to me, I have to know the person to be able to put the event into context—to know whether it’s funny or horrifying.

What E.M. Forster was saying about Jane Austen’s characters is that they exist beyond the scope of the story in which they are written. They have range. They have connections outside of the cast of characters who appear in the story. They do things in their lives that the reader may never know about (but the author does). In Jane Austen’s writings, Mansfield Park stands out in that it follows the heroine’s life from before her birth (opening with the marriages of her mother and aunts). But for the heroines of the other five major works—Lizzy, Emma, Elinor, Anne, Catherine—we are given only hints at the life they led before the book opens. We know some more about Emma through her relationship with Mrs. Weston, her former governess, than the others. But as readers, we know that these were women who were leading a “normal” early 19th Century life—because we see them doing so in the opening chapters of their novels. We know that we’ve picked up a story in the middle of someone’s existence.

Characters are not born on the first page of a novel (unless you’re writing an epic which follows a character from birth to death). What was your character doing an hour before your opening scene? A week before? A year before? What was she like as a child? Who were his friends? What games did she like to play? Did he have any pets?

When our characters have traumatic events from their childhood that affect the story we’re writing, we tend to spend more time analyzing their past to see how they’ve coped and why they act the way they do in the “present.” But just because a character hasn’t had childhood trauma, doesn’t mean that they don’t have an interesting past. Figuring out who they were before the story starts helps mold who they are as the events of the story transpire.

For the most part, characters do not die on the last page of a novel—okay, yes, sometimes they do, but I’m not writing this for those authors! What is your character going to do five minutes after what happens in the last line of your novel? An hour later? A week? A year? While this isn’t nearly as important to know as what happened to them before the novel’s beginning, it will help give you, as the author, closure. It can also generate ideas for follow-up or sequel books!

An aspect of Jane’s novels that I love is that she gives a very nice wrap-up summary of the “happily ever after” that her characters gain at the end of each novel. There is no wondering if Elinor and Edward Ferrars have to struggle to make ends meet on a clergyman’s salary—Jane shows us. (I wish this would come back in style . . . but I guess that’s what sequels are for.)

Now, go weave some extensions into your characters (wait, that doesn’t sound right)—anyway, go have fun getting to know your characters better . . . it’s writing related, but you can do it while you’re cooking, cleaning, shopping, or wrapping gifts. Just be sure to write down the highlights when you have a moment and they’re still fresh.

One Comment
  1. Anonymous permalink
    Friday, December 8, 2006 12:29 pm

    Terrific questions to ask about characters. Just thinking about what my characters might have been doing an hour before the opening scene, or a year, or a decade, all impacts how they are in the story and how they will react to the crisis I throw at them.


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