Last Tuesday, my WIP was put to the readers’ test. Now that the dust has cleared, and the flurry of emotion settled, I see that some of the feedback I received points to key structural problems in my story: plot holes and character development.
I’m not surprised that my main character lacks depth and definition in many areas. I’m still in the early drafts (as a good writing friend reminded me). But, a recent post this week on Jason Black’s Plot to Punctuation blog (“What potholes can teach you about plot holes”) brought to my attention how underdeveloped characters negatively affect plot.
Jason Black talks about two kinds of plot holes: strange actions and strange inactions.
A “strange action” is when a character does something that makes no sense to the reader. A “strange inaction” means just the opposite: the character sits, unaffected, and doesn’t take action when the reader expects they will. The reader asks, “Why?” She might say, “What the heck?” She might even put the book down.
Those kinds of questions, Jason Black suggests, are clear signs that a story contains plot holes.
After I read Jason Black’s post, I remembered moments during my critique when readers asked why. They said they wanted to empathize with my main character but couldn’t. They said they couldn’t imagine my main character taking any action that might lead to her radical evolution suggested in my synopsis.
I couldn’t give a good answer to their questions on the spot. Later, I realized if I couldn’t explain the why’s or why not’s, I had an even more serious problem at hand: underdeveloped characters.
Of course, they haven’t read the whole manuscript, but their feedback began to make sense as I compared Jason Black’s post to Larry Brooks’s (from Storyfix.com) book on character development (The Three Dimensions of Character: Going Deep and Wide to Create Compelling Heroes and Villains).
In his book, Brooks introduces the first, second, and third dimensions of characters.
The first dimension equates to an “exterior landscape” of the character or – as Brooks puts it – the character’s “surface traits, quirks and habits.”
In my WIP, my main character has plenty of quirks and only a few surface traits, so I already had some revisions on my list. Then, I read this:
“…Newer writers [often] infuse their characters with all manner of quirks and kinks and little tics designed to make them either cool, weird or supposedly – best intentions – compelling. But if those quirks and kinks are all you offer the reader, in the hope that the reader will fill in all the blanks, then chances are you’ve created a one-dimensional character” (p. 17).
Oops. I did that. I created an odd woman as my main character but never explained why she was so odd.
The second dimension reveals the character’s “inner landscape,” the reasons why she does what she does.
“Glimpsing an inner landscape allows the reader to understand, which is the key to eliciting empathy – [and] the more [empathy] the reader feels, the more they’ll invest themselves in the reading experience” (p. 20).
That information about the second dimension suggests I need to create a slew of new scenes that will allow my main character to explain herself. Those explanations might come in the form of backstory or dialogue.
The third dimension gives real definition to the character through the character’s “decisions and behaviors” (p. 23). The reader understands the character’s core being at the beginning of the story, through the character arc, and at the end of the story when the character comes out a changed person.
As a new writer tackling my first novel, I jumped from exterior descriptions of a character to her actions and decisions. That only got me so far with the readers. Brooks makes a good point when he says, each layer – each dimension – of character works together “to create the most compelling, complex, frightening, endearing and empathetic character that you can” (p. 25).
If I neglect to write in even one of the three dimensions, the character falls flat and the plot begins to buckle.
Lesson learned. Now, I get down to business and dig deeper into my character’s psyche.