Saturday, February 2, 2013

Guest Post: No Flatline Main Characters, Please

by Michelle4Laughs
Check her out at:
Kindar's Cure on Goodreads

So what does that title mean? Flatline as in the heart monitor on a hospital crash cart? Dead characters? I’m going to rant against the rise in the popularity of zombies. Not exactly.

By flatline, I’m referring to a main character’s journey, not their heart rate. No I don’t mean the plot. This is not about plot. A flatline character is one that ends the story exactly the same as they started. They haven’t changed; they haven’t achieved any personal growth. I’ve noticed a lot of published books like this recently. But do those books leave any lasting impression on readers? Will they be remembered?

In my opinion, the best books and perhaps most difficult to construct are the ones where the main character’s personality line arcs over the course of the plot instead of remaining flat. They learn something and perhaps teach the reader as well. The mc grows—subtly, of course. Nobody likes in your face preaching from their reading entertainment, save that for church.

So how does one avoid the flatline main character? How do you get arc in your character’s journey? Does your character have their epiphany in one giant lightning strike of zen? I believe it’s best to tackle a character’s transformation from several different angles. They may have that lightning strike moment, but it better be because a whole lot of somethings guided or pushed them to it during the course of the story. In other words, it takes some planning and tactics.

Guru Knows Best One of the kindest ways to influence your character is to throw them a Yoda. That all wise character that answers the main character’s questions with riddles of wisdom. They shine the light that makes your main character wake up from stupidville and find enlightenment. However, being kind to your main character may also mean effortless. Relying on this method to create character growth is both cliché and the equivalent of handing your mc an easy button.

You are letting another character solve the mc’s problems, which is also known as the Cinderella complex. Your character has to be the active one, the one who gets themselves out of messes. Don’t let a prince ride in on his white horse (or swinging his green lightsaber of wisdom) and make everything all right for your character. Some answers have to be discovered the hard way.

Conflict, Conflict, Conflict Conflict drives a story’s plot, but it also drives a character. It’s the pressure builder that forces a character out of their comfort zone and into change. When I say conflict most people think of actions taken by the antagonist. But there are all types of conflict to employ so you don’t have to rely solely on the villain to create possibility for growth in your hero.

Environmental conflict sets up hurdles in the physical environment. For example, a main character in a science fiction story may be up against a poisonous methane atmosphere such as the Avatar movie. This is a fun type of conflict to throw into the mix as the hero has to overcome it, yet there is no person directly responsible to blame, nor often anyway to change the circumstances.

Relationship conflict is trouble between characters that are understood friends or allies. Fellowship of the Ring is a drastic model of this type of conflict. One of their own company tries to take the ring from Frodo. Most ally conflict doesn’t turn to violence, but relies on differences of opinion or arguments. It can help create a sense of being alone in a main character. Romantic conflict is in the same mold and does the same thing. A character alone is more likely to be forced into growth.

The best way to shove change on a main character is internal conflict—those internal thoughts of doubt and doom. Those feelings that they are just not good enough or smart enough or cool enough. That fear that they are making the wrong choices. And since we’re inside the mc’s head anyway, we can hear it all for free! Anakin Skywalker is your poster child for this type method of bringing about character change. Remember, a character without internal conflict is an uninteresting character so use it. Now, how do you bring out these internal doubts?

Bottom of the Barrel Another fantastic tactic to drive your main character toward change is throwing them into the bottom of the barrel. In other words, don’t treat your darling like he/she (it?) is made of glass. Make them suffer. Suffering equals opportunity for growth. This can be hard. I, myself, couldn’t do it in my first manuscript. After all, you love your characters; you made them all by yourself from fairy dust and magic. They are your babies. Like your children, you don’t want them to get hurt. Don’t Protect Them! They have to take those knocks. The more hardship they have to endure, the easier they’ll bend.

Put them in impossible situation. Find out what scares them the most and make it happen. Let allies betray. Let the villain have the upper hand. Kill off their friends, or at least, put those friends in grave danger. Cage your mc. Have time run out. Most importantly, let your character get physically hurt. Break some bones once in a while. Show they bleed. Give them real injuries to prove the danger is real.

Raise them up. What’s that you say? Didn’t she just tell us to make our characters suffer? Well, what better way to make them feel the suffering then if you throw a little success at them first. Give them some confidence, then when they think everything is coming up roses, make it go to hell.

Thank you, Eli, for opening your blog to me and letting me pick my own topic. Creating a character arc can be a difficult as there are many possible ingredients. You can throw in some of this and some of that to make a blend which leads to growth. What about you? Have you brought growth to your main character? Made them slightly different people from where they started? I’d love you to share your suggestions for influencing character arc.


Joyce Alton / @joycealton said...

Yes! Bring on the suffering. Cue evil laugh. Great post, Michelle.

T.J. said...

Great post! I like torturing everyone involved in some way. I have to flesh out some forms of meanie acts during edits...but I do love being evil to much fun.

SC Author said...

I love where you said make them PHYSICALLY suffer. I never thought about that, and I'm going to use that now :) I got a new idea to use in my WIP! Thank you!

Mia Kim said...

Love it! I'm glad being evil to my own MC isn't such a bad thing after all :)

Rick Pieters said...

It's a shame we have to make them, our beloveds, bleed to make them grow, but we do, don't we? Good to remember, too, that sometimes their growth isn't for the better. Villains change, too. Right, Darth? Without arcs for each character, we are left with puppets to act out the story. We humans don't relate much to puppets, but we sure do to the pain, suffering, triumphs and setbacks that resonate inside us, those things that changed us. Good post, Michelle.