One of the greatest challenges for authors of fiction is to create characters who are multifaceted. It’s tempting to generate protagonists who are all-good and antagonists who are all-bad like the old cowboy shows where the heroes always wore white hats and the bad guys wore black hats. But life isn’t all black and white and our characters shouldn’t be either.
I’m reminded of the Flat Stanley Project in which many elementary teachers engage their students to encourage literacy. It involves the character, Stanley Lambchop, featured in a series of children’s books by Jeff Brown. Stanley is accidentally flattened and makes his way around the world in envelopes. In trying to give our characters personalities, authors often create individuals who are flat, predictable and stagnant. When I first started writing, I was guilty of creating flat characters who, although distinctive, were stereotypical in nature.
As I focused on the important skill of character development, I began to improve the depth and breadth of my characters. In my novel, The Dark Room, I worked on developing Stella’s personality to show that, while victims of domestic abuse display a typical profile, they can grow and change as they are educated about abuse. I wanted Stella’s character to exhibit increasing confidence and independence as she began to own her power and believe in herself. Edith and Mike were able to escape their unhappy pasts and find true love in each other. The child, Jodie, began to heal after escaping an abusive childhood, and her mother, Amy, at last had the opportunity to rebuild her life and her relationships after prison.
If character development is to be plausible, it is not always positive. Since this is true in life, it must also be true in novels. Sometimes people change in negative ways. In my soon-to-be-released novel, I Want to Go Home, Abby Jordan and her younger brothers grow and mature from their experience of homelessness, but their mother, Elizabeth, is unsuccessful in overcoming her addiction to alcohol.
While I prefer to read novels with happy endings, and I like to write novels with happy endings, I’m learning to develop my characters in a variety of ways. Some will be triumphant over life’s inevitable challenges while others will fall flat. Effective fiction imitates real life. Effective characters imitate real people.
Cindy L. Freeman is the author of two award-winning short stories and three published novels: Diary in the Attic, Unrevealed and The Dark Room. Coming soon from High Tide Publications: I Want to Go Home. Website: www.cindylfreeman.com; Facebook page: Cindy Loomis Freeman. Her books are available through amazon.com or hightidepublications.com