I am currently deep in the bush of revisions, and while I was out there dodging small snakes and a crocodile named Deadline I had a thought:
Characters need yoga.
Allow me to elaborate, because that sentence is weird.
1) Good characters have patterns of behavior based on who they are.
If we’re doing them right, characters have an internal life to them — a consistency based on their beliefs, their history, and all of the little decisions that have informed who they are as people. If you asked a writer with a strong character, “What would Mary Ann do if she found a gator in her bath tub?” — They would likely have an answer for you, based on who Mary Ann is.
Maybe she grabs a shotgun and goes to town. Maybe she screams and runs for the hills. Maybe she gives it a lecture on not wasting water, because lord knows the turtle next door likes his soaks.
The nature of a character informs their decisions, which determines their actions in the story.
2) Good stories take those characters and stretch them out into new positions.
It can be easy, with a strong character that you know well and like to fall into patterns gracefully. Mary Ann always grabs that shotgun, because she’s a firecracker and that’s just how she rolls.
But consider this: What if she doesn’t?
Having established that Mary Ann’s an aficionado of the firearm, what if we, the writer, give her not only an opportunity to do something else but a choice? Maybe this time, instead of shooting a hole in her plumbing, she stops. She gets someone to help her take the gator out to the swamp and release it.
Why does she do this? Who does she call? What’s changed in Mary Ann’s life or perspective that’s altered her normal course of action?
This is an excellent way to break something vital. Work up to it!
3) Yoga (Or: Why stretching is good for the soul)
Characters who behave out of line with their normal reactions can make for good story, but it can be jarring if it happens without warning or foreshadowing. Going from upright to full splits with nothing in between can lead to serious injury; the same can be said for a character pulling an abrupt 180 mid-tale. It can throw the reader right out of the story; it can break verisimilitude completely.
Now, I am not a yogi or an advanced practitioner — so when I’m using this as a metaphor, please be gentle and correct me if I’m mistaken. But speaking generally, when starting a yoga session, you begin with simple, small movements. You raise the arms, breathing deeply. You move gently and surely into the next pose, and the next, until you’ve completed a series — each one seguing into another until you’ve gone from standing upright to fully extended on the floor and back again.
Show the progression.
Depending on how much you plan before you begin writing — architect versus gardener, pantser vs plotter, etc. — you may find that you need to go back and look carefully at how your character is shifting. Make sure that you’re laying the foundation — those small shifts in position — that will get your character fully extended without injury.