Some aspects of my life should be filed under the header of “When will she learn?” Around Christmas, I wrote a post about a “de-pantsing” incident at the grocery store. Let me refresh your memory if you’ve read this blog before, or explain to you if you’re a first-timer. I threw on a pair of warm-up pants over my pajamas and headed to the grocery store. While I proceeded down an aisle, said pants started creeping down. Unfortunately, my hands were full at the time, and I couldn’t pull them up right away. Other shoppers got more than they bargained for.
My pajamas are not as nice as these.
Earlier today I threw on the same warm-up pants over my pajamas to go out to shovel snow. I had worked up a rhythm when I discovered that the air felt breezier than it had before. You guessed it. My pants had slipped down to my ankles. Again. And the temperature was ten below zero Fahrenheit (-23.33ºC). Also, my hands were full again.
By now, you might be saying to yourself, When will she learn? I’m wondering that myself. You see, I really thought that this time everything would be different. Somehow, the pants would stay up. Is that naïveté? Stupidity? I’m shrugging my shoulders.
Perhaps you have the same reaction to a character in a novel. Maybe that character’s continued naïveté or denial frustrated you. (Please don’t get me wrong. I am not against naïveté.) I may be a terrible hypocrite (judging by my behavior with the warm-up pants), but I get frustrated by characters who refuse to learn a specific truth by a certain point in a novel. Instead they cling to a lie or doubt to a point beyond what seems reasonable.
For example, let’s say character A does not believe vampires exist. Fifty pages later, character B is bitten and develops a taste for blood. But character A still refuses to believe that vampires are at work, even though everyone else believes at this point and there is ample evidence to prove their existence. If you’re the author of that book, you need to have a good explanation for the character’s disbelief. Otherwise, you’ll lose me as a reader. Oh yes. I have walked away from books where the main character clings to denial for a contrived reason.
I can’t help thinking about a quote in Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway, Elizabeth Stuckey-French, and Ned Stuckey French:
Often the notion of change is mistaken by new writers to mean change that is abrupt and contrived. . . . Rather, change can be as subtle as a step in a new direction, a slight shift in belief, or a willingness to question a rigid view or recognize unseen value in a person or situation. (133)
A character’s disbelief or behavior pattern is compelling if it is part of that character’s emotional arc—for example, an addiction the character strives to deny; unresolved issues with a parent, friend, or significant other; something that would fundamentally change the character’s life if his or her belief system were rocked to the core.
Let’s go back to my pants issue for a moment. I wish I had a compelling reason for my belief that the outcome would be different if I wore those pants. Actually, I was being lazy. I didn’t feel like walking ten feet to get a different pair of pants—hence my false hope that everything would work out fine if I could be spared the work of getting to those pants. But my laziness proved detrimental when the pants fell down. (Thankfully, no one else was around to witness this.)
It all comes down to character. Problems come when a writer takes a shortcut instead of doing the hard work of crafting believable characters who deal with hard choices or seemingly impossible situations. Characters need to grow at a rate that fits the pace of a story and the seriousness of the issue. If the character’s belief changes too quickly, it reduces the “seemingly impossible situation” to something much smaller in scope. Also, the tension decreases. We need to at least see the character struggle with the decision to change.
I hope I won’t have to write a third post involving my wearing the same pants. If I do, please feel free to tell me, “When will you learn?!”
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need a cup of hot chocolate. While I get that, let me ask you this: At what point in your story does your character come to a point of change? How did you determine the optimum point to shift that character’s belief?
Burroway, Janet, Elizabeth Stuckey-French, and Ned Stuckey-French. Writing Fiction. Boston: Longman/Pearson, 2003, 2007, 2011. Print.
Pajamas from texeresilk.com. Cup of hot chocolate from littlerockmommy.com. Belief image from envisionedentrepreneur.com. Shortcut from faruqi-izzuddin.blogspot.com.