One of my favorite parts of writing fiction is putting my characters in shocking situations. To make their worst nightmare come true or make the unthinkable happen. They are key moments in the story for the protagonist like when the main character realizes her father is the villain, and she must kill him to save the world. Or it becomes clear that his lover is leaving him for a woman. In either case, these realizations rock our characters’ world.
In my writing group, I’ve read about characters shattered by a revelation, and within a couple of paragraphs, they have accepted it as their new reality. Then, they move on to the next plot point without a second thought. This scenario guarantees a lengthy critique comment from me. Why? Because that’s not how it happens in real life.
When someone receives life-changing news, they move through the cycle of acceptance. Think about a person’s thought process when they receive a cancer diagnosis. Anyone who’s gotten such terrible news would tell you that it took them a while to process and accept it. Likewise, the stages of grief involve a little bit more than, “Oh no, that’s awful news. I can’t believe he’s gone. Wasn’t there anything the doctors could have done for him? Too bad, I’ll miss him.” A ridiculously simplistic example, but I’ve read some stories where it’s written in such manner.
In my current work-in-progress, a pivotal moment is when my protagonist’s destiny is authenticated. In the opening scene, her potential fate is suggested to her, but nothing is certain until her fate is validated. Throughout the next 20 pages, she gathers information and learns more about her preordained role. Dread starts to settle in because she wants nothing to do with this leadership role.
Finally, the moment of truth is upon her, and her destiny is authenticated. Her initial responses include shock in the form of a panic attack, and when she recovers, a vehement denial. At the end of the scene, she accepts the reality for a split second and asks her companion, “What happens now?” The total word count is about 600 words or about 3 pages.
In the next scene, she reverts to denial until she starts bargaining with herself. She starts to think of ways to avoid assuming this role and the consequences if she throws the challenge per se. Through internal discussion and soul searching, she resolves to get on with the ritual to assume power because it’s the only way to end the nightmare. Her hope is she will fail at some point, allowing her to return to a life of anonymity and solitude.
My protagonist cycles through the phases several times on different levels throughout the book. On a macro level, her character arc. Her transformation from one person to another includes working through the stages. Also, she works through a variation of the process each time she learns something about her past. Sometimes, she gets through the process quickly. Other times, it takes her more time to reach acceptance. It depends on the bombshell dropped on her, and there a few of them.
This approach is fundamental to my writing. I believe it adds depth to my characters when readers understand what they go through when the author puts them in challenging situations. In my protagonist’s case, the poor woman gets blindsided several times when she learns about the lies she’s been living. Showing her range of emotions helps endear her to the readers, and they become invested in what happens to her.
The takeaway for this post – put your character through the paces.