A matter of leverage

I’ve been thinking a lot about characterization lately. Partly this is because the protagonist of my current work in progress is a challenge for me to write.  Much of it, though, is the effect of realizing that for me, character is the primary doorway into story: if the characters don’t engage me sufficiently, then the narrative had better have a really strong plot or concept or something else, or I’m moving on.

In the last year or so, I’ve settled on a metaphor of levers as my means of figuring characters out (in my own stories or anyone else’s). To get at what I mean by that, you need the appropriate mental image: visualize the character, and then visualize one or more long poles sticking out of her, offering convenient handholds for maneuvering her around.

No, really.

This is almost but not quite what most people would call “motivation.” It includes that, but also extends to things like conflict; basically, anything you can use to pitchfork the character into action. Going back to that aforementioned protagonist: Galen pretty much showed up with three levers already sticking out of him, and was in the process of tying on some tags for ease of identification — man, I’ve never had a character so eager for me to screw him over. His are 1) a desire to save the fae of the Onyx Court from the threat that forms the core of the book, 2) a wholly unrequited passion for a lady in his life, and 3) a need to secure his sisters’ futures by marrying someone rich enough to rescue his family’s finances. Anything I need to have happen in the story, I can achieve by pushing down on one or more of those handles.

So when I turn my thoughts to Irrith, the other protagonist of the novel, I immediately start wondering what her levers are. They aren’t as obvious as Galen’s — unlike him, she isn’t lying down for her author to walk all over her — and I’m still working on figuring them out. “She wants to understand mortals” is one, but I know that isn’t the whole story. I can’t catapult her into the plot with that alone. Her personality is clear to me, but without ways to exert force on it, I won’t make very good progress with the book.

Archimedes said, “Give me a place to stand on, and I will move the Earth.” I don’t need to move the planet, just an assortment of imaginary people. But it got a lot easier when I figured out the proper application of force.

Does this metaphor make sense to anybody else? What kinds of levers do you see sticking out of your own characters, or people from your favorite stories?

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  1. 1. S. Megan Payne

    I love this explanation of things. It’s very insightful to me. And I have a similar thing happening with my characters. Some of them show me right up front what they want, what they’re willing to do, what they have to do, what others want from them, their enemies. Then others sort of sit there strong and ready for me to give them something–or make me dig deep into their psyches to find it.

    I have one character that really floored me for a while. She constantly made things difficult for characters she supposedly should have cared about and sometimes made things smooth sailing for them. As a government agent, she held a lot of power to do that. She was very unpredictable and I only knew her through her interactions with others since she was very cold. Once I found her handle though, everything became significantly easier. She pushed people away to keep them safe, so they couldn’t be used/hurt/killed to control her and did what was best for them even if it would make them hate her.

    I’ve never thought about it the way you put it, but it works very, very well.

  2. 2. Merrilee

    That’s a nice idea, and a cute mental image. Most of my character’s ‘levers’ are to do with needs and goals; survival is a theme in a lot of my stories, so there’s a lot of visceral, down-at-the-bones type motivation.

  3. 3. Tim of Angle

    This is an excellent conceptual framework for working with characters. Like you, I need interesting characters to anchor my interest in a story.
    Perhaps this is why I love your books, and recommend them to my friends.

  4. 4. Shawn Scarber

    This is an interesting way of conceptualizing character. I tend to boil mine down to their raw needs and flaws. In fact, I’ll often choose a central flaw as the driving force of my main character, because often this forces the main character to be the source of his or her problems.

    One of my favorite examples of this is Pride & Prejudice. The two main characters are driven by their flaws [they are of course pride and prejudice], these flaws are what keep them apart and are also the central problems they must resolve to finally get together.

    The movie Batman Begins also has a main character driven by his fatal flaw. Of course, most people believe that flaw is vengeance, but it isn’t. Bruce Wayne’s fatal flaw is fear and the whole movie is driven by his desire to overcome that fear. His fear caused his parent’s death, his fear drove him to the criminal underworld for understanding, and his fear is what created Batman. Batman is Bruce Wayne’s attempt to overcome his greatest flaw.

    I guess I tend to look for one big lever.

  5. 5. Marie Brennan

    Shawn — Not to strain my metaphor too far, but the advantage of multiple levers is that it allows a bit finer control, I think, of where you’re steering the character. It’s easier to send them left or right, and to navigate a finer-tuned course. That isn’t necessary for every story, of course; sometimes what you want is a tale dominated by a single driving force. But (switching metaphors now) if you have a hammer and a screwdriver and a saw, you’re better able to deal with a narrative that includes things other than nails.

  6. 6. S.C. Butler

    I think the lever metaphor works perfectly. It’s what I try to do with my own characters. Sometimes I even succeed.

    What really annoys me is when the characters figure out my levers and start applying pressure on me to take them where they want to go. Never in a story’s best interest, that.

  7. 7. Clare K. R. Miller

    I really like that metaphor! I already feel it working in my brain, giving me ideas for how to make my stories better…

  8. 8. Kelly McCullough

    Very slick! I like it. I come at story world first, plot second, character third, and this is very similar to how I think about character in terms of result, but wildly different and really useful in terms of actual mechanism for getting the characters to do what I want when I want them to do it. Definitely adding this to my mental toolbox.

    Thanks!

Author Information

Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is the author of more than forty short stories and seven novels, the most recent of which is the urban fantasy Lies and Prophecy. Visit site.

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