When you read or write a novel, you often fall in love with the characters. You’re moved by who they are, what they stand for, and what their lives are. Sometimes you’re moved to tears. Sometimes you’re horrified. And sometimes you finish the novel, turn the last page, and sigh because something magic happened for you inside those pages. You saw something for yourself, you felt something, you connected with the characters in such a way that you had a new experience of life. As a writer, the magic of the written word comes to life in the characters, usually when they’re up against something difficult. I’ve discovered that one of the greatest things I can do for myself is to break my characters, and to make them experience all aspects of human emotions. Why? Because that’s where humanity is. That’s where the readers connect. That’s where people see something for themselves that they may not have seen before. And, that’s where I grow.
Most of us have heard about the analogy of a crumpled paper or a broken plate, and how once it is ruined it will never be whole again. This is an analogy worth bringing to your characters as you write and discover who they are. While the paper or the plate will never be whole again, when you break your characters you discover that they’ll never be the same again. They may be whole but they will be so in a different way.
Consider Harry Potter or Katniss Everdeen. They’re both great characters fighting for their lives, but the experiences they have change them, for better and worse. Katniss is my favorite example of a broken character because when the story ends, she doesn’t have her happy ending. She has the real ending. She has a life that she created to deal with the experiences she had. She found love, she had a family, she made a life, and yet she was never the same after her experiences. There is something beautiful to me about that because ultimately it says she rose above what she experienced. Isn’t that what we’re all trying to do in life anyway?
When you break your characters, when you put them to the test physically, emotionally, and morally, you find their strengths, you find their weaknesses, and ultimately you pull the humanity out of them. That’s where they move from one dimensional ideas to three dimensional beings with life who are vibrant and beautiful.
When you take the analogy of the plate or the paper and apply it to your characters, you must realize that you’re applying it to life. You’re having your characters experience their hardships, and in so doing your readers experience them as well. I think this is why people read, and to a large degree it’s the reason we writers write. Every human on this planet has experiences, both good and bad, that they are dealing with. Most of the time we can’t verbalize them. Not because we’re not allowed to, but because we don’t know how to. For me, when I began writing I realized I had found a way to verbalize what I was feeling. While the experiences my characters were having were nothing like my own, I was able to project a lot of my emotional turmoil into them and then let it go. It was almost like I just needed to experience it through a different story in order to understand that it was okay, that I was human and even that was okay.
For the readers, that is often what they’re looking for. Not always, but often enough that it’s worth looking at. In fact, I would argue that the books that are the international best sellers are typically best sellers because of what they offer readers in terms of learning and growth. People want to connect with the stories, they want to see the characters rise above the hardest situations because it gives hope that maybe they can. It gives a new perspective on experiences that they may have had. Sometimes they connect with the emotional climate of the character in a way that they don’t understand, but somehow it clears up something in their life.
I am a strong believer in the magic of words. Words create worlds. Worlds divide planets. Words sever and build relationships. Words bring joy. Words bring pain. Words, once spoken, can never be retracted. If we have so much power in the simple sentences we speak, how much magic can we find in the pages of a book where some wonderful author poured their heart and soul? This is what your readers are connecting with; the part of you that you can’t hide, the barest most vulnerable part of your Self that bled out onto the pages. This is why you break your characters, because in so doing you uncover those parts of yourself that your readers want to connect with.