Turning points

You have your main character and she is busy at work in your book, battling evil robotic androids in chapters one and two that evidently plan on enslaving humanity to work in their giant banana plantations. Then in chapter three she discovers that the androids are not robotic at all, nor are they even androids – they’re aliens! Aliens that thrive on potassium; suddenly the banana plantations make much more sense. In chapter four she falls in love but the beloved turns out in chapter five to actually be an alien in clever disguise. Torn between her love and her desire not to see her species reduced to a mute and enfeebled breed of the sort wonderfully depicted in the classic Planet of the Apes movie (Heston, not Wahlberg (although Wahlberg did a fine job too, really)), she… What? What does she do at this crucial juncture?

These are the points at which a plot is made or broken, a story arc enlivened, energized, or run off a cliff. These are the clearings in the philosophical sense, where what had been the character’s entire world flips itself inside out and in a sparkling moment of realization the character is transported not from here to there but from Planet Heretofore to Planet Unforeseen. These are the moments of rebirth, and each of our lives is filled (one hopes) with countless examples of them – and so too, naturally, for our characters.

Character development does not just entail acquiring knowledge and skill. Even a largely one-dimensional character such as the type used in action/thriller stories grows psychologically through the effects and nuances of the experiences they undergo. It would after all be impossible for them not to, for each of us moves through life in this way as we partake in what our fates dish out and how we respond to what we are served. This is most evident in the evolution of a character’s perspective; and as writers it is in the description and explication of character viewpoint where we are most able to bring this out. We have access to all of the inner workings of at least our main character’s mind (for first person works), and quite possibly for every character’s mind (third person, deep third, head-jumping, etc.). Through this privilege of place we can bring the reader in to observe – or even to be involved with, to participate in – the unfolding of this new world for the character in question. Think back to a time when your own mind clicked over and your eyes blinked once, twice, and the cosmos was transformed: nothing was for you the way it had been only a moment before. Call it an enlightenment, call it a moment of grace, call it a bolt of intuition, a touch of the unexpected, or even a simple transformative random encounter; whatever label you attach the profundity of such is unquestionable. Far more than any external occurrence it is times like these that define the course of our characters and our books.

Momentous events like these are by their nature rare, but they are no less important for that. They can be overused, and there is most definitely a sense in which we are all the products of our early formative years and try as we might – or the universe trying as it might – there are aspects of every person that simply cannot or do not change. For a character to go from a thoughtful and kind person to a malicious and cruel villain in the space of a few sentences would obviously be an outrage (well, short of a botched lobotomy or the like); but for a character to go from operating under one point of view to a freshly shifted one is entirely within the realm of possibility. Whether that is, or becomes, a welcome or unwelcome possibility is for the rest of the narrative to decide – and the potentials there are endless.

The judicious use of psychological turning points in our plots and subplots can add depth and beauty to our works. In my own reading of others it is these moments that really stand out for me in my memory of the stories, it is these moments that really separate out the good from the bad, quality from mediocrity, the heartfelt and lasting from the bland and forgettable. The effective employment of this technique is something that I think every writer needs to have in their toolkit, and it all starts from a consideration of just how very much is involved. In realizing that we can then start to consider, from our own pasts and from what we’ve read or seen, how such can be expressed. And then we plan. We experiment and we fail. We get it right; and the world (and our book) turns over a new page.

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