An Apple Isn’t Just an Apple
When I first started my novel, I thought the keys to a good thriller were plotting and pace. Since both of these are my strong points, I felt I was set. I wrote the first scene and immediately realized I was wrong.
The scene had action and dialogue, a murder, a twist, but still, it felt dry and skeletal. In reading it over, I began to understand that the least interesting thing about a book is what the characters do. Why they do what they do is much more intriguing, and more fascinating still is how they are feeling when they do it.
Here’s an example:
Two parents are arguing over their 23 year old son who isn’t in school, doesn’t have a job, and lives at home, where his stay at home mother cooks, cleans, and does his laundry for free. It’s lunch time, but the son has just stumbled down looking for breakfast. The mother starts to get up from her lunch and fix something for him.
The husband grabs her arm and says, “No wonder he doesn’t do anything. You do it all for him.”
The rumpled son who needs a shave, shrugs and picks up and apple from the fruit bowl on the counter.
“That’s what people who love each other do,” the mother says, snatching the apple just as the son is about to bite into it. “That’s not washed.”
She takes the apple to the sink. She washes it with soap, dries it with a paper towel, takes out a knife and begins cutting slices onto a plate. She carefully removes the core and seeds. “Apple seeds are poison,” she says.
Now who do you think she’s cutting that apple for? Her son? I doubt it. She could be cutting up that apple to make a point with her husband. Maybe she was sick last week and needed someone to stay home and bring her soup, but it was her husband’s poker night so he left her to fend for herself.
Or, maybe she’s trying to convince herself she’s still needed by her family, that it’s up to her to keep them away from pesticides, and poison apple seeds, and anything else dangerous in their path.
Or, perhaps it’s a statement to her controlling mother who died before she could show her she isn’t the incompetent nincompoop her mother always said she was.
What I’m saying is, don’t let your characters cut up apples simply to be cutting up apples. The character’s history and emotional state should imbue his every action with meaning. When you write from the character’s emotional standpoint, rather than an action standpoint, your writing becomes full blown – it works on many levels. It loses its dry and mechanical feel and grows rich.
Everything your characters do, even the way they eat, reflects upon who they are. But to make this happen, you have to know your characters, know their history, their secret doubts and wishes, the things they may not even be aware of themselves. Think about it. How often do you psychoanalyze your boss? Or your sister? Or that jerk of an ex-husband? We all do it and often, because we have a fascination with ‘why.’
Why was she so mean to me?
Why does he treat me like I’m an idiot?
Because he’s no good at doing his own job and it makes him feel better about himself.
Why did he leave me for a younger blonde?
He’s overcompensating for growing older.
The reader likes to figure these things out too. You never tell them in words, it’s understood from what you have built into your novel, as well as from what you’ve left unsaid. You’ve given the reader an understanding of the character in a lot of ways: the way your character perceives the world, the way other characters respond to them, the things they place importance on, the things they neglect. All of these details are telling, and they grow our understanding of a character’s psyche and make them compellingly real to the reader.
Questions For Today:
What do you feel you must know about your character before you can begin to write?
How do you build your characters?
How do you keep a character compelling over the course of an entire novel?