I bought strawberries this week. Not the pick-your-own kind, straight from the fields, but the ones that arrived in my grocery store, straight from California. I know, I should be eating local, but it was the long weekend and I just wanted some fruit. So, I brought these babies home and opened up the plastic clamshell to find this:
These were three of six extra-extra-extra palm sized strawberries in the pack. Were they tasty? Sure, but it did make me wonder if they were treated in some way to grow to that size. I know the strawberries we get in June around my area, picked from local fields, are a quarter of this size and about 100 times sweeter. True berries are small, dark and utterly fantastic.
Which brings me to the truth. These may look like strawberries, taste like strawberries and function in my recipes in exactly the same manner as berries grown close to home. But are they authentic? Are they real? Are they the truth when it comes to berries? The same could be asked about characters when you write.
Often, I find myself reading a scene (whether it’s one I’ve written or one by someone else), and I’ll feel like the character isn’t genuine. Yes, maybe it’s a “typical” teenage girl, having normal problems and facing perfectly probable situations, but something feels off. Is it the character, or the scene? Usually, it’s the character. Here’s something I always try to keep in mind when writing:
You can’t write a scenario and fit your character into it. Your character MUST dictate the scenario.
This might seem contradictory to lessons you’ve learned about writing. After all, you’re the author, right? YOU are the one making all the choices about who does what. So, why can’t you write anything you wish? Because characters are more than just people plopped into a scene. They have lives and histories you’ve already created. They’ve made decisions and held beliefs that got them to that point. You have to respect those, and understand that the character must act true to themselves. They need to dictate how a scene will play out according to their personalities, or the scene won’t feel genuine.
Say you’ve got a partying slacker dude who can’t be bothered to go out of his way for anyone. He won’t drop everything to help his mother in with the groceries when she’s had a bad day, no matter how much it makes him more likeable or gets them to have a conversation YOU really need them to have. I’m not saying your characters can’t have layers. On the contrary. You just need to make sure you’ve scattered references to those layers throughout the story prior to a pivitol scene. Slacker dude might have a soft spot for his mother because she’s a single parent working two jobs to keep them afloat. (He could come home at two in the morning, find his mother asleep on the couch after a long shift, and cover her with a blanket.) If you need them to have a conversation because it moves the plot forward, make sure to scatter in this type of character reference LONG before you need the scene. That way, it won’t pull a reader right out of the story when he suddenly becomes Mr. Considerate.
You devise the plot, create the people and set up roadblocks for them, but they are the ones who will ultimately dictate where the story goes. Let your characters be true to themselves and you won’t end up with bloated, exaggerated versions that only bear a resemblance to the real thing. Remember the strawberries!