Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Square Pegs

Someone told me not too long ago that he couldn't figure me out. The analogy he chose was of the square peg/round hole variety. He meant this as a compliment, for the most part, and it's nice to know that I continue to defy expectations.

Let's look at this from a character development standpoint. Suppose, for a moment, that you're reading a book and a character does something you don't expect. Is this a symptom of that character being poorly-written, or is it due to the fact that the author realizes that dynamic characters are more intriguing than static ones?

The truth is, it could be either. On the one hand, a skilled author can integrate that unexpected action into the story in an organic way that ends up making sense down the line, either as part of a larger character arc or as an essential deviation necessary to the story. On the other hand, an author who feels the need to have a character do something unlikely for the sake of throwing the reader for a loop is, in all probability, stuck in a corner and thinks he has to blast his way out.

In the first case, perhaps the unexpected thing is not so unexpected after all--the character could be purposefully quirky for the sake of comic relief, in the case of a secondary character, or for the sake of being a unique, in the case of a main character. Because the truth is that no one in this world conforms to a certain shape of peg. There are diamonds, hearts, stars, ovals, and millions of tiny variations on them. This should also apply to fictional characters, because if your characters each fit a specific template, there's a good chance your reader will get bored.

There's nothing wrong with following certain guidelines, of course. In romance novels, the heroines tend to be outspoken and their sidekicks gregarious. The key, though, is to add your own facets. Perhaps the heroine is outspoken because her mother died in childbirth and she has had to take over as the mother figure for her younger siblings. Maybe the sidekick is gregarious because she's overcompensating for the shyness that crippled her social development when she was an adolescent.

When in doubt, consider your own life. What makes you stand out from the crowd? Take that trait--or set of traits--and pass it on to your characters, not to make a fictional version of yourself but to give your readers something with which to connect. Because as much as we all want to fit in sometimes, there is joy and usefulness in being a round peg in a square-holed world.


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