Saturday, October 10, 2009

Characters and Morals

When I was writing The Year of the Scream, I had a lot of decisions to make about my main character, AJ. Some of those decisions dealt with morals and ethics, yet I knew that I had to be very careful here, so that it wouldn't seem as though I were trying to "teach" a moral lesson. I thought it might be beneficial to others if I told a little about what I ( and AJ ) went through.

AJ is a wonderful, smart, sometimes funny ( humor is not my best subject) young teen whose self-image is mostly dependent upon what others, specifically her best friends, think of her. Now this is somewhat a common problem with kids, especially those just entering their teens. They want to be popular, to "fit in," so often they try to be something they are not. So one lesson AJ has to learn is that she can only be who she is, no matter what others think or say. She can pretend to be something she is not, but it's only pretending. Eventually, she must learn that the only thing that really matters is what she thinks of herself, not what her friends think of her. And even though fictional, that is not easy to do.

As her story goes along, she finds that she must make choices, right or wrong. We do that in real life, and we can't always be right, so AJ can't always be right, either. Sometimes this is harder to write than it is to live! Since this is fiction, somewhere along the way she must find herself facing a moral dilemma, and she must show some kind of growth from the decision she makes, regardless of whether it is right or wrong.

As writers, we usually learn that we must ask ourselves certain questions about our characters, and why they give us the answers they do. For me, those questions are: what does AJ love and why? What does she hate and why? What does she want and why? What does she need and why? And, what does she fear and why? If I can answer those questions for her, then I will also know exactly what she wants out of life and what she will do ( or not do) to meet her needs. I should also be able to know what could make her do something out of fear or perhaps temptation that she wouldn't ordinarily do. Believe me, that part was tricky!

Another good question to ask about your characters is...what if? AJ's friendship with her two BBFs is ruined by the antagonist, Celine. But later on, one of those friends wants to make up with AJ. So...what if AJ becomes friends again with her? What if AJ doesn't want to make up? Does this also become a moral dilemma for AJ? Is she so "good" that she can forgive and forget? AJ is not perfect, she must show somewhere that she is as much a flawed individual as all of us humans are, so is this where she shows that she is not some kind of heroine? Hmmm...well, we'll see!

In the end of the novel, AJ learns something about Celine that could destroy her life. She finds that she has the option of telling everyone at school about Celine's secret life, or she can protect her by not saying anything, in which case not even Celine will even know what AJ had found out. This is a very big moral... and probably ethical, also... choice for her. What choice does she make? And in the end, is it the right one or the wrong one for where she is in her life?

I answered this question one way. And AJ promptly woke me up in the middle of the night, saying she was not satisfied with what she was doing. It didn't seem like the right or logical choice for her. You know, I usually listen to my characters...especially when they wake me up at night! So I changed the end result, and everyone, including AJ, was much more satisfied.

I don't think you can write a long story ( or maybe even a short one), and certainly not a novel, and not have your characters, especially the main characters, face one or more moral dilemmas. Think about do you give your characters the answers to the questions that you often have to ask yourself, and then have them make choices? Are they always the right choices? If so, does that make them some kind of "super hero" which you wouldn't find in real life? Or do you allow them to feel their way, to be vulnerable and open to making mistakes and wrong choices, even when it comes to morals and ethics? No matter which path, your characters...take, do they grow from their decisions? Sometimes, this is the most difficult part of your novel.

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