There’s a song by the Christian songwriter Graham Kendrick* that says, “You’re the perfume, I’m the jar | When the jar is broken on the ground | There’ll be fragrance all around.” And whatever you believe about a higher power, I think this is generally true of people – and characters.
You see, characters are blank slates. They’ve got personality and voice, but we still don’t really know who they are – until they’re broken. Then, suddenly, it all comes pouring out, and we see exactly what makes them unique.
Characters react differently to being ‘broken’. I’m using the verb to refer to all the horrible things their authors put them through, whether it’s loss and grief and other emotional pain or physical torment and hardship or both, and it’s the best way to find out what they’re made of.
Some characters who have lost their entire family and are stranded somewhere without a mentor or guide give up and have to be persuaded not to end everything by somebody who happens to be passing. Others in the same situation might show their unfailing optimism or downright stubbornness, refusing to give in.
Some characters who have suffered repeated physical pain at the hands of another become bitter and seek revenge, trying to get some recompense from those who wronged them. Others are capable of forgiving even the most sadistic acts.
You can already see how a plot would be altered according to the nature of the character, but unless you put them in a position where they can be broken, you may never see this ‘perfume’. Their true nature shows itself through how they react, and their responses may decide whether or not the character’s situation gets better or worse, and regardless of morality, the consequences usually decide whether the reader perceives it as justifiable.
For example, in the latter scenario, if the character’s thirst for revenge led them to murder the person who hurt them, therefore saving themselves further suffering as well as helping an ‘innocent’ character in the same position, it would often be seen as better than if the character allowed their abuser to continue, condemning others to suffer along with them.
However, if the ‘evil’ character repents and changes their ways, or breaks free of whoever was instructing them to cause such pain if it wasn’t of their own accord, then a character who only seeks revenge may simply cause more suffering, whereas a character capable of forgiveness (even if they don’t then become ‘friends’, which is usually far too much to ask) is portrayed as more sympathetic.
Breaking your characters not only shows their personality traits, but it can also be interesting to see how they react, especially when they’re usually somebody who acts. That was poorly phrased, and I’ll endeavour to explain. Some characters drive their own story. They make decisions. If you followed the “conflict / mystery / lack”** form of plotting, they’re the ones who decide to resolve those issues themselves. Mythological/literary example: Queen Medb.
Characters who are used to reacting (mythological/literary example: Aeneas) are less interesting when placed in a situation like this, because it gives them a hurdle to jump over, and that’s what they’re good at. But characters who act and drive their own story may find it harder to overcome the barriers thrown up in their path, especially when it robs them of their agency and power.
So when you have a strong, independent character who forges their own path, stick them in a situation where they can’t control their fate, and see what personality traits rise to the surface then.
“Okay,” you say. “I get that you’re having fun with the idea of breaking a jar to release perfume and whatever, but you’re not making a lot of sense. How do I ‘break’ my character?”
This is the fun part. I’ve already given a couple of scenarios that should give you ideas, but here’s a list of some of my favourites.
- Physical pain. Without a doubt, physical pain causes both real-life humans and fictional characters to show their true colours. Some people soldier on, keep going to work, and only give in and go to hospital when it’s physically unavoidable. Other characters find it more difficult to bear, and can’t stomach as much. Of course, this can depend on backstory: if your character has suffered a lot in their life, they’ll be better at dealing with it. Someone unused to pain may give up more easily. Consider any medical conditions, disabilities, or old wounds that might be aggravated.
- Loss. This can be a way of exploring your character’s beliefs about death, but it also causes them to display their personality. Those who have loved and lost the most are occasionally kind-hearted and loving, but most often they end up bitter, cynical, and prickly. Knowing that nothing lasts, they’re afraid of intimacy, and are all-too-aware of their own mortality. However, for the most of us, loss is hopefully an infrequent occasion, and a character’s ability to deal with it will be a reaction to their circumstances as much as anything else. Do they close up and hide from everyone? Or do they mourn and then move on? Denial of grief can be nasty later.
- Emotional upset of other sorts. Often, this takes the form of betrayal or abandonment, which can be similar to loss, because it usually resolves around one person and the destruction of a relationship. However, it can be as simple as a break-up between two romantic partners, or an overly barbed insult that cuts deep to the bone.
- Severe trauma. Yeah, loss sucks. But what about watching the person you love die right in front of you? What about your character and their best friend or sibling or lover standing side-by-side in battle … and only one of them dying? Not only do you get the trauma, physical pain, and loss, you also get the additional joy of survivor’s guilt. Yay.
- Limitations. Take away your character’s ability to fight with a nasty injury. Stop them from playing their musical instruments by repetitive strain. Place them in a role where they are forbidden from taking responsibility and have to follow someone else’s orders. It can even be as obvious as putting them a hundred miles away from their goal without transport. Limit them, and see how they overcome those limits to achieve their aims.
My recommendation is to do a combination of the five, a particularly nasty cocktail. It depends a lot on genre and what sort of mood you’re going for – in Death and Fairies, a lot of it is about physical pain and severe trauma, with a good dollop of loss, whereas The Quiet Ones tends to focus on emotional upset and is more conflict-oriented.
In conclusion, I’m a really mean-spirited person who enjoys torturing her characters. Wait, no, that’s not what I meant to say. In conclusion, breaking your characters is what allows them to shine. Their reaction and the way they work with their circumstances tells you more about their personality than, “She was the stubbornest person I knew.”
It’s just another example of show don’t tell, really. Work out what would convey the fact that they’re more stubborn than anyone else the character knows, and write it.
Go forth and break your characters.***
*He’s kind of old-school compared to Tim Hughes and Ben Cantalon and all that lot, but he has some really great lyrics, and I’ve danced to a number of his songs in the past. Also, my parents once met him halfway up a mountain. True story.
**This is the form of plot where the protagonist starts out with a mystery to solve (“Who are my parents?” “Why can I see faeries?” “Who killed my best friend?”), a conflict to resolve (often a literal battle between two sides), and a lack to obtain (“I have no friends” “I’m powerless” “I’m homeless”). These drive the story. For example, Queen Medb, who demonstrated action vs reaction, lacks a cow that’s more awesome than her husband’s, so she goes looking for one, and starts a war, and things happen, and lots of people ‘feel in their bones’ that enemies are near, prompting me to sing Radioactive for the entire day. I recommend this way of plotting as a technique.
***For an alternative and entirely cerebral / psychological method of breaking characters, I recommend watching Hannibal and examining the treatment of Will Graham. I take no responsibility for the results.