Characters Vis-a-Vis Characters

Lately I’ve been working on scenes that introduce a new character in my manuscript. Other characters have talked about her since the beginning of the book—she’s the mom of one of the main three characters—but she doesn’t actually show up until about page 250 of a 450-page manuscript.

By some happy accident, the first three scenes she appears in are one-on-one conversations with other major characters. She talks with her son on his return home from a long trip, then with her employer (who is one of the major antagonists), and finally with the book’s heroine. They are all very different conversations: they vary in her familiarity with each character, her comfort level, her intentionality, her role. What she wants from each conversation is also very different, and how she goes about achieving that objective depends on how in control she feels in the situation. She is much more direct with her son, much more submissive and manipulative with her employer. She is also manipulative with the heroine, but in a more active, pressuring way.

I didn’t mean to use her relationships with the other characters in the story to help readers get a sense for who she is, but in retrospect, editing through the conversations, it’s effective. This is, of course, unsurprising: in real life, how we interact with our friends, family, coworkers, significant others, or children says a whole lot about who we are. And typically we treat different people in our lives differently—at least, hopefully we treat our friends differently than, say, our children—and how we decide to treat people differently says something about us too. Even (or maybe especially) the way we treat strangers like restaurant servers or the people in line ahead of us at the grocery store is telling information for the other people in our lives.

For better or worse, the ways we interact differently with the different people in our lives are often subconscious and subtle, which can make it hard to observe and even harder to translate into the actions and speech of fictional characters. Despite my best attempts at psychological realism, too often I find my characters acting the same way in all scenes and in all circumstances, which doesn’t come across as character “consistency” but instead as wooden characterization. Or worse, all my characters talk and act the same as each other, complete with the same motivations and dialogue patterns. When my idealism gets the better of me, all my characters start behaving how I think people ought to behave, instead of how people actually respond in real-life situations.

When I’m trying to outline a satisfying three-act plot, it also isn’t necessarily possible to string together scenes that best highlight the characters’ different personalities by playing them off of each other. But having edited these few scenes with this one character, I would like to be more conscious of when and how I can use the dynamics between characters to really bring out the details of each character’s desires, motivations, and values.

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