Monday, 24 October 2011

Depth Not Breadth

Recently I was looking at someone's short story and was struck by how many problems the main character had. Girlfriend problems, work problems, boss problems, family problems...he had the lot and they were cluttering up the main story which was nothing to do with girlfriend, work, boss and family. I asked why they'd chosen to give the character so much to deal with, and they answered that they'd wanted to make the character 3D by giving him lots of conflict in his life.

Well, yes. And no.

What was happening was problem overload, none of which was dealt with in any detail - it was a short story, there wasn't time - so it was coming across as a series of cliched situations. There was none of the specific detail that makes a character seem real. The writer had gone for breadth - lots of problems - but not depth, so the character appeared shallow.

I learned that lesson when I was writing Adultery for Beginners. I wanted people to feel sympathetic for my main character, Isabel, right from the start because she was going to have an affair (there was a clue in the title). So I needed her to have an excuse to stray from her husband, one that people would forgive her later actions. I knew they were going to be ex-pats; I'd been told that in Syria, there was abortion on demand, but you were also sterilised at the same time. That sounded like an interesting situation, so I gave her a backstory that involved her being pressurised by her husband to have an abortion because they'd already got two children.

But I couldn't really make it work. So I gave her a backstory that involved her having a baby out in Africa and it dying because the husband didn't take her concerns seriously. He was a civil engineer, so I tried to add into the scenario some issue around water shortages. That didn't work either. I tried a few other things, but all the time I was pushing ahead with the actual story.

By the time I got to the end of the first draft I ditched the backstories because I didn't need them. I knew the characters so much better - deeper - I didn't need to bolt on some invented scenarios. They were ordinary, flawed people in a long term marriage who were tempted to stray. That was all I needed.

Giving characters extraordinary problems doesn't make them interesting, nor does giving them interesting hair, strange deformities or quirky habits that seem inconsistent with what the characters do.

Get to know them well through their actions, and their deeper character will reveal themselves. Go for depth, not breadth.

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