A Matter of Leverage

[Originally posted at SF Novelists.]


I’ve been thinking a lot about characterization lately. Partly this is because the protagonist of my current work in progress is a challenge for me to write. Much of it, though, is the effect of realizing that for me, character is the primary doorway into story: if the characters don’t engage me sufficiently, then the narrative had better have a really strong plot or concept or something else, or I’m moving on.

In the last year or so, I’ve settled on a metaphor of levers as my means of figuring characters out (in my own stories or anyone else’s). To get at what I mean by that, you need the appropriate mental image: visualize the character, and then visualize one or more long poles sticking out of her, offering convenient handholds for maneuvering her around.

No, really.

This is almost but not quite what most people would call “motivation.” It includes that, but also extends to things like conflict; basically, anything you can use to pitchfork the character into action. Going back to that aforementioned protagonist: Galen pretty much showed up with three levers already sticking out of him, and was in the process of tying on some tags for ease of identification — man, I’ve never had a character so eager for me to screw him over. His are 1) a desire to save the fae of the Onyx Court from the threat that forms the core of the book, 2) a wholly unrequited passion for a lady in his life, and 3) a need to secure his sisters’ futures by marrying someone rich enough to rescue his family’s finances. Anything I need to have happen in the story, I can achieve by pushing down on one or more of those handles.

So when I turn my thoughts to Irrith, the other protagonist of the novel, I immediately start wondering what her levers are. They aren’t as obvious as Galen’s — unlike him, she isn’t lying down for her author to walk all over her — and I’m still working on figuring them out. “She wants to understand mortals” is one, but I know that isn’t the whole story. I can’t catapult her into the plot with that alone. Her personality is clear to me, but without ways to exert force on it, I won’t make very good progress with the book.

Archimedes said, “Give me a place to stand on, and I will move the Earth.” I don’t need to move the planet, just an assortment of imaginary people. But it got a lot easier when I figured out the proper application of force.