The characters you create need to be given certain knowledge or abilities in order to solve the story tension. Whether characters need to conquer self-fears, solve mysteries, get out of danger, or survive day-to-day traumas, writers need to choose specific qualities that would help their characters accomplish this.
Knowledge is a big trait in many stories. In one of my short stories, my teen protagonist needs to help her younger brother who’s having an asthma attack in a cave. But as writers, we also need to explain how the protagonist obtains any knowledge. In my character’s case, she learned how to control her brother’s asthma from watching her mother do it. In another story, my young teen needed to understand how to back away from a wild animal on a mountain. Again, the knowledge was explained through story. The teen listened to park ranger talks.
Character abilities are another trait. Think of the superheroes’ abilities to fly, create fire, or shoot webs. Each of these traits helps the hero accomplish something important in the story, whether they are protecting the world, snagging the criminal, or saving their own skin. Everything that happens in a story needs to be there for a specific reason. It needs to move the story forward. Whether we endow our characters with the knowledge of the life cycle of bats in a cave or the ability to become invisible, the traits must be given to help the character solve the story tension. And they need to be specific.
Character traits must also solve the tension in memoir. In memoir, many times the protagonist is finding a way to cope in a particular situation. In my memoir about attending college as a mother of five, Victoria is finding ways to accomplish the foreign language requirement at the Ivy League level. In the pages just submitted to my editor, I’m up to 140 pages now; Victoria takes a twenty-page French placement exam. Believe it or not, she places into French 120 [French II].
In three semesters of French at Penn, two three-hour classes per week, Victoria deals with discussing racism and genocide, social and psychological issues and politics in class, writing weekly essays in French, creating blog posts and oral and video presentations, writing research papers, attempting listening and speaking tests in French. She is grossly out of her comfort zone and desperately searches for ways to cope in French class because she needs at least a B average to keep her scholarship.
To accomplish this she studies French vocabulary constantly, obtains a tutor through the university, seeks the prof before class to be able to explain in English her difficulties with learning the language, [you were not permitted to use English in the classroom]. And when all else failed, Victoria asks the younger students in class what the professor is talking about—when the prof is not looking of course. Tears of frustration are shed. Then Victoria learns about being able to take the language requirement as pass/fail, but she still needs to turn in and pass all the work required. Many times, her husband finds her asleep at her computer five minutes before the midnight deadline to post the work.
So what are Victoria’s traits at this time in the memoir? Perseverance. And when the last professor tells Victoria she does not pass the language requirement because she is not fluent in French, Victoria finds the courage to stand up for herself and speak with the Dean of Romance Languages. In doing so, she passes the language requirement at Penn.
Our characters are unique. They require specific traits in order to solve the story tension. And as writers, we need to remember to explain how the character came to acquire that knowledge or ability, no matter what genre we are writing in.
So what character traits or abilities do you give your protagonists to be able to solve the tension in the story you are telling?
Please feel free to offer any insight regarding Victoria’s struggles learning French at the Ivy League level. It would be truly appreciated.
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