Thursday, March 24, 2011

A Nothing Character

The full version of the title: How You Know If You're Writing About a Nothing Character and How to Fix It (Without Scrapping the Whole Project). Just so you know what you're in for :)

Two weeks ago, I wrote my first realistic fiction ever. It was a strange experience to say the least. There is a reason that I am attracted to the genre of fantasy and science fiction, just as there are reasons that other people are attracted to the genres of mystery or non-fiction. There's also a reason that this is the first time I've ventured into realistic fiction. Of all the reasons that I like fantasy, I find the antithesis in realistic fiction. Fantasy can transport you to another world; realism thrives on staying in it. Fantasy blocks the internal conflict of good and evil into magic and wars; realism explores good and evil as a blurring of the lines with rarely any right or wrong. I live realistic fiction everyday. Fantasy, not so much.

Everything was going pretty well the first seven pages. I had characters, conflicts, and the blurry line of right and wrong simmering underneath. Until I came to one sentence, one piece of dialogue, that stopped me in my tracks:

" "My apologies, sir, but it seems our volunteer for this hour is either late or has forgotten their commitment. For now, what can I get you?' "

What? How could this paralyze you with fear? you might ask. And I'll bow my head, look at my toes like a chastised child, and explain in a small voice. Until this point, the story's direction was that this act being offered (providing snacks for the people at the recuperation table in a blood drive) was to be done by the protagonist and not a nurse. It was to be an act that symbolized her overcoming her internal conflict of shyness and external conflict of being unable to help others by giving blood. My story would have a happy, cheery ending.

Now, it could not. My protagonist's job had just been stolen by someone else! This job that I has assigned specifically to her could be filled by anyone, and after it had been, I was left with a hollow, empty character. What role did she have left? Why was she there if she couldn't do anything? Why was I writing about a nothing character?

It ended up I had to reexamine her internal and external conflicts. Of the seven pages I had written, what had popped up that needed to be resolved? As a small exercise to understand how internal conflict can be presented, I made a list of favorite media of mine. I'll type out what I wrote:
The King's Speech (movie) - fear of failure, sense of only being able to fail
manifestation: anger -> can't do what he wants to do
-> license to ignore the problem
-> also worsens external problem of stuttering

The Hunger Games (book) - can Katniss trust Peeta (lack of trust in government, Peeta, etc.)
manifestation: manipulating Peeta (kiss)
attacks him (bees)
save (mud)
ignores him (trains separately)
External conflict (games) tries and puts a spotlight on internal conflict

Full Metal Alchemist (manga) - guilt
manifestation: joins military
self sacrifice
External conflict (body condition) is a reminder of internal

Using the patterns I was beginning to see, I then returned to my own character to overview what I thought to be her internal and external conflicts. It took me about a half a second of staring at the page thinking shyness isn't an emotional conflict that I realized I had no internal conflict at all! Instead, I had a manifestation of internal conflict. So what was making her shy? This is when I had my breakthrough.

The rest of the story fell into place once I declared her real internal conflict: the fear of expressing the wrong emotion. My protagonist faces a piece of her past which she has been ignoring up until now because she fears she feels wrongly about it. So instead of dealing with the emotions and the story behind them, she pushes it to the back of her mind. This story, which she despises her mother and herself for, is aggravated to the front of her mind by the blood drive. Much more complicated and engaging that a cliche story of a girl overcoming shyness, eh?

The whole thing ended up 8 pages long. I knew I was close to the end, but when I hit the wall, I was tempted to throw it out as a failure. I'm glad I didn't. Not to say that I've written a perfect story, but at least it's a step in the right direction. The story will still be successfully torn to shreds in workshop next Tuesday, but I'm at least confident that I won't hear the complaint: you've written about a nothing character.


  1. I like how you discovered her internal conflict because you had already written the manifestation of it...that seems to be how I come to understand 90% of my characters. I'll try to think of internal conflicts for them ahead of time, but then when I write them they throw those conflicts out the window and I'm left scrambling to figure out what their real ones are. If I give them interesting quirks and personalities, though, there always seems to be some awesome explanation for it, though. My subconscious is way smarter than I am.

  2. My sentiments exactly! There's this fine line between creating and discovering while writing. We might consciously choose something for our characters, but, when we come upon a roadblock or an unexpected conflict, somehow the subconscious roots up something that was there all along that just naturally fixes the problem. It's what so many authors verbalize as "living characters," things that aren't just in the imagination but are bigger and perhaps really exist somewhere out there.

    Anywho. Thanks for being my first follower! I know it's silly, but there is this small portion of happiness created by a little picture signifying that someone is following you.