Monday, February 7, 2011

Mentor Monday - How to Eat an Artichoke, or Revealing Layers of Character

When we meet someone for the first time, we often make certain assumptions about them right off the bat. They’re funny or crude, fascinating or lackluster, we could talk to them all night, or we can’t get away from them fast enough. But first impressions are often wrong, and even when they’re not, there is always far more to an individual than we originally see. The longer we know someone, the more we learn about them.

Fictional characters are no different. As readers, we open a book and meet a main character. We immediately decide whether or not we like this person and if we want to spend a whole novel with them, so the first impression our character makes is important. Something about her has to grab and entice the reader.

On the other hand, we don’t want to bog the reader down with so many character details that there is nothing more to learn. If our characters come whole and complete at the beginning of the story, the ability to surprise the reader as the story progresses is lost.

And that is where the artichoke comes in. We present it, in the form of a main character, to our readers. See it, so perfect and pretty and green! Then we allow them to pick off a leaf here, pull another from there, scrape a bit of meat off with their teeth and discover a few brown spots. That funny, overachieving girl they first met has a fear of failing, which is why she is an overachiever. They learn she is funny because she is afraid of being laughed at. She is not the perfect person we first presented her to be.

Now we allow the reader to pull a few more leaves, to find there is a bit more meat to be had, meat that is softer, more tender. The reader learns our heroine has a secret desire to dance, and when the people she wants to impress most find her in the gym practicing dance moves none too gracefully, and she doesn’t run away in tears, the reader learns her desire is far stronger than her fear of failing. They learn she has strength and tenacity, and maybe she learns that, too. As the reader pulls back more and more leaves, and we reveal more and more of our character’s character, she becomes as real as a living person.

Eventually, the reader comes to the heart, to the true essence of who our character really is. They know her strengths and weaknesses, her likes and dislikes, what she will sacrifice for and what she will fight to the death for. She has become the friend they’ve known for twenty years. And just when they think they know all there is to know about her, we surprise them one last time by showing them that last spiny little bit of the artichoke hidden inside with the heart, that hidden strength or virtue or attribute that allows our heroine to overcome that final obstacle or achieve that longed for goal.

Revealing a character’s character in stages can be as messy and time consuming as eating an artichoke, and while it won’t lower cholesterol or improve liver functions and digestive systems, it will keep your readers reading and, more importantly, you’ll have given them a character they will care about and remember.


Mur said...

Great post, Barbara. Revealing too much about a character in the beginning of a story is often a newbie mistake.

I'm Jet . . . said...

A tasty entree!

Excellently written, Barb, and an important thing to remember.


Andrea Murphy said...

Terrific information nicely done. You've given us lots to chew on, Barb.