09 December 2023

Character Tests and Conference Rooms

Last summer, I did a Killer Nashville panel on character contrasts, and I got stumped on a question. Now, and this is important, I knew the question was coming. It was there in the panel leader's planned topics emailed around beforehand. I'd read those questions and agreed that these were great ideas. And I think a lot about characters and how to characterize. A whole lot. But these are the sorts of thoughts writers often think alone in our lairs. Suddenly, I had to verbalize my inner conjuring in front of a conference. With examples from my own stuff.

The question was how character interactions reveal each other's psyche and values. It's a sharp question. It frames a simple fact: No protagonist or antagonist or supporting cast shines alone. Other characters must test them, vex them, find common cause with them, and ultimately shape them. These characters need not be human. Places, weather, a monster brought to life by lightning. A proper story tests mettles and motives and echoes the tests throughout.

Most in that crowd were seeking tips to polish their novel manuscripts. My lens worth sharing is short fiction. If anything, though, a short story's hyper-compression presents this character interplay in teachable chunks. And what are good stories if not echo chambers for their compressed worlds? Extraneous character interactions in a story stick out worse than, I don't know, say a writer mulling over examples in front of a conference room crowd.

I think I stalled well enough while finding my answer. By panel rules, the examples were to come from recent work. The recent work in reach was my "Spirits Along the One North Road," in AHMM this last summer. "Spirits" has a train ride scene where the main character, a corporate embezzler guy hiding in Quebec, meets the other primary character, a middle-aged woman who becomes the embodiment of the new Canadian life he seeks. Their first scene together is all brief exchanges and awkward silences. What small talk the guy elicits cuts to their parallel core: family relationships and belonging.

That scene also shapes their very different takes on those things. He is newly divorced after his wife can't take being with a crook. He's in a lousy headspace of suppressed guilt and sees Quebec as an overromanticized sanctuary. The local lady already has a normal family life and a peaceful Canadian existence. To her, it's humdrum, too boring even for chitchat. He treasures his every-other-weekends with his kids. She's a good mom but despises her older kid's life choices.

They engage each other differently, too. He's expansive and carrying the conversation. She answers tersely, in clear signals to shut him down. His bad mojo vibe creeps her out a little. This initial meeting sets up their end-of-story parting moment, where it comes out that they ultimately share not just desires and disillusionments but also self-destructive greed. At core, they both think that somewhere else in this world life offers a release. He tried it and struck out. He'll circle home or die alone. Her shot at escape is just starting.

One strategy on character contrast I've picked up magpie-like goes like this:

Forgive me a Venn Diagram and also any missed credit for the construct. I've found this triad to be a great baseline for character inner selves, and there are endless ways to riff off it. "It" might be a McGuffin or a place or an emotional state. Maybe Character D doesn't want this thematic thing at all. The point is the connecting echoes among the characters. It's the third perspective that for me brings magic. Two characters arguing simply shows an argument.

But characters should argue. They should want to argue. Characters should raise old grudges and talk around each other and misunderstand because of their personal filters and motives. Character values come alive in the ground they hold, the ground they cede, when they get angry, when they deflect, when they go silent. Especially when they go silent. In that silence is deep truth.

Which is way better articulated than I managed in that conference room. Months later, that panel question still has me thinking about these nested character interactions and how to get better at it as I grow. And any question that leads to wonder is a gift.


  1. That's a great Venn diagram. Character tests - I think I have a tendency to make each character the personification of a sin (or tendency thereto) and go from there. I'll have to think about this one for a while. Thanks!

    1. Thanks! Being intentional about those perspectives helps make sure even the cameo characters bring a new lens to the same question.

  2. In fine arts and music and culinary arts, opposites make the focus 'pop' or stand out. Would religion work if there was no Satan?


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