One of the ways an author can kill suspension of disbelief stone dead is with character gimmicks. They’re not cool. Or compelling.
Dan Brown did it. In The Da Vinci Code his lead character Robert Langdon was claustrophobic. Brown did not weave that into character; it was simply a device to heighten dramatic tension at key moments, and that gave it the feel of being a bolt-on, a contrivance. Not a portrayal of a real, complex, in-depth human. Not part of the character arc – did Langdon learn anything from it? No.
There are better ways to do that – take another thriller, Firefox. Craig Thomas wove PTSD into Mitchell Gant, the damaged Vietnam vet pilot sent to steal a Soviet super-fighter. Yes, this too was a dramatic ploy; Gant had flashbacks at inopportune moments - but Thomas wove it far more skilfully into the character.
Asimov showed us an even better way with Elijah Baley, the detective hero of his robot mystery novels. Baley was agoraphobic by lifetime conditioning inside an enclosed New York, the ‘cave of steel’. Dealing with the outdoors became part of Baley’s life, which Asimov explored in several novels, particularly The Robots of Dawn, where Baley had to confront his fear in a crisis. Asimov, in short, made agoraphobia integral to the character arc. That meant it wasn’t a gimmick.
One of the criticisms levelled at Asimov was that he had gimmicks in other ways – his robots were defined by the ‘Three Laws of Robotics’. But he turned that on its head too. Most of his robot stories involved problems with the laws. Then, in Robots and Empire, the sequel to The Robots of Dawn, he showed how the robots – particularly his ‘humaniform’ robot Daneel Olivaw – found ways of overcoming it.
The Daneel Olivaw of Foundation and Earth was the outcome. A robot character defined by three laws - surely the essence of ‘character gimmick’, in a literary sense - that had become a true character. A further demonstration of what a great writer Asimov really was.
My top three suggestions?
1. The essence of the story is to show how people change. Something you use to define their character should also define their character arc. If you have a cool idea about a character’s character (I can’t believe I wrote that), how does that fit the character arc.
2. People express their character quirks in different ways. How does this link to their personalities? If you have a character who nervously fiddles with their spectacles, what does that tell us about persona? Why can’t they relax? Everybody expresses their quirks differently, and it’s up to the author to figure out how and why.
3. A character shouldn’t be defined by a textbook condition; it merely acts to filter their personality, from a literary perspective.
What are your thoughts?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012