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How to Raise Your Characters Above the Status Quo

If you find your characters falling flat, sometimes the best way to add dimension is also the most overlooked. Here’s how to enhance your fiction through the subtleties of characterization.

You’ve sweated over your manuscript, crafted your characters, honed your story line, and rooted your novel in a location organic to and inseparable from your plot. Now, as you begin tweaking and revising your story, it’s the perfect time to take a closer look at the depth and dimensionality of your characters.

One of the most effective ways of doing this is one most writers have never even heard of: managing status.

I first learned about status years ago while studying physical comedy, mime and improvisation. I remember listening to acting instructor Keith Johnstone (author of IMPRO and Impro for Storytellers) explain how dominance and submission affect actors on stage and how stillness raises status. As he spoke, I kept thinking of how essential it is for writers to capture the same characterizations on the page.

Since then, I’ve been on the lookout for ways to fine-tune the status of my characters. Here are four essential principles I’ve discovered.

So what exactly is status?

Simply put, in every social interaction, one person has (or attempts to have) more of a dominant role. Those in authority or those who want to exert authority use a collection of verbal and nonverbal cues to gain and maintain higher status. But it’s not just authority figures who do this. In daily life all of us are constantly adjusting and negotiating the amount of status we portray as we face different situations and interact with different people.

Novelists have the daunting task of showing this dynamic of shifting submission and dominance through dialogue, posture, pauses, communication patterns, body language, action and inner dialogue. To do so, you’ll need to recognize some basic status cues:

  • Dominant individuals exude confidence through a relaxed demeanor and loose gestures and gait; submissive people constrict their stride, voice, posture, gestures.
  • Looking down, crossing your legs, biting your lip and holding your hands in front of your face are all ways of hiding. Concealment lowers status.
  • Eye contact is a powerful way of maintaining dominance. Cultures differ, but North Americans prolong eye contact to intimidate, control, threaten or seduce.
  • Stillness is power. Dominant people delay before replying to questions not because they can’t think of anything to say, but to control the conversation. They blink less frequently than submissive people and keep their heads still as they speak. The more fidgety, bedraggled or frazzled a person is, the less status he has.
  • Submissive people apologize and agree more than dominant ones. They try to please and are easily intimidated. To act as if you need something lowers your status; telling someone they can be helpful to you raises it.
  • Effective negotiators mirror the status of the people with whom they’re doing business. This way they neither appear too aggressive (intimidatingly high status) or too willing to compromise (unimpressively low status).

Status varies with respect to three things: relationship (a father has higher relational status than his 8-year-old), position (a boss has higher positional status than her employees) and situation (if you’re attacked by a team of ninjas and you’ve never studied martial arts, you’d have significantly lower situational status than your assailants).

Although the level of relational, positional and situational status might be out of our hands, our response to it is not. The daughter might manipulate her father, the employee might quit, and you might summon up enough moxie to frighten off those ninjas. So, in determining status, choices matter more than circumstances.

When readers complain that a character is one-dimensional, flat or “cardboard,” they may not realize it, but they’re actually noting that the character—regardless of the social context in which she appears—always has the same degree of status. She might always be angry or ruthless or heroic, but the more uniformly she responds to everyone and everything, the less interesting she’ll be.

People in real life are complex.

Fictional characters need to be, as well.

So what’s the key to a well-rounded character? Simple: She doesn’t have the same status in every situation.
Each supporting cast member is in the story to bring out different traits of the main characters. Dimensionality, depth and complexity are all brought out by showing subtle shifts in your character’s status as he interacts with the other players.

In my novels featuring FBI Special Agent Patrick Bowers, I’m careful not to let him appear weak or cowardly: I want readers to respect and admire him. Whenever he’s at a crime scene or standing up to a bad guy, he has the highest status. He’ll never back down, never give in, never give up.

But to have dimensionality he also needs relationships in which he has low status. So, as a single dad he struggles with knowing how to handle his sharp-witted and surly teenage daughter, and, lacking some social graces, he fumbles for the right things to say to women he’s attracted to. Without his daughter or a love interest to reveal those low status aspects of his characterization, he’d be one-dimensional, and certainly not engaging enough to build a series around.

If you want readers to invest in your protagonist, you’ll need to find areas where he has a weakness, low status or something to overcome. Remember, even Indiana Jones is afraid of snakes, and Superman is vulnerable to Kryptonite.

In theater the phrase “stealing the scene” refers to instances in which another person upstages the star. Actually, it’s just another way of saying that the star (or protagonist) no longer has the highest status.

When this happens on stage, it will annoy the star.

When it happens in your novel, it’ll turn off your readers.

And you can shatter hundreds of pages of careful characterization with one poorly chosen word.

A person with high status might shout, holler, call or yell, but if she screams, screeches, bawls or squeals, her status is lowered. Similarly, a character who quivers, trembles, whines or pleads has lower status than one who tries to control the pain. For example:

1. Adrian drew the blade across Sylvia’s arm. She shrieked and begged him to stop.

2. Adrian drew the blade across Sylvia’s arm. She clenched her teeth, refused to give him the satisfaction of seeing her cry.

In the first example, Sylvia’s uncontrolled reaction lowers her status beneath that of her assailant. In the second, however, her resolve raises her status above that of Adrian, who has evidently failed to intimidate her.

Rather than appearing victimized, she has become heroic.

Your protagonist must never act in a way that lowers her status below that of the antagonist.

Take a moment to let that sink in.

You might find it helpful to imagine high-status movie stars playing your protagonist. I’m not sure about you, but I have a hard time imagining Liam Neeson, Jason Statham or Bruce Willis pleading for mercy or screaming for help.

Remember, choices determine status. So, while revising, continually ask yourself what you want readers to feel about each character. Do you want them to be on this character’s side? To cheer for him? Fear, despise or discount him? Every action, every word of dialogue, every gesture—even every speaker attribution—communicates a certain status, so be sure the words you choose support the impression you’re trying to make. If Betty stomps across the floor (showing lack of self-control) or struts across it (implying the need for attention) she’ll have lower status than someone who strides across it (showing composure and confidence).
Even punctuation affects status:

1. “I know you heard me! Move away from Anna! If you lay a hand on her, I guarantee you will regret it!”

2. “I know you heard me. Move away from Anna. If you lay a hand on her, I guarantee you will regret it.”
In the first example, the exclamation points cause the speaker to come across as frantic or desperate. In the second, the periods show him to be controlled, measured, authoritative. That’s how a hero responds.

A wimpy protagonist isn’t interesting.

A wimpy antagonist isn’t frightening.

In marketable fiction, both heroes and villains need high status. When villains aren’t frightening or heroes aren’t inspiring, it’s usually because the author let them act in a way that undermines their status. Don’t make that mistake.

When I was writing my novel The Rook, one section gave me a particularly difficult time. Agent Bowers is at the scene of a suicide when Detective Dunn, a street-smart local homicide cop, shows up. Dunn is tough. He’s used to calling the shots, to having the highest status. In this scene, he makes an aggressive, high-status move by getting in Bowers’ face and then taunting him. I struggled with showing that as bold and brash as Dunn is, my hero still has higher status. After hashing through numerous drafts, here’s how the encounter finally played out (from Bowers’ point of view):

[Dunn] stepped close enough for me to smell his garlicky breath.

“This is my city. The next time you and your pencil-pushing lawyer buddies from Quantico decide to stick your nose into an ongoing investigation, at least have the courtesy to go through the proper channels.”

“I’d suggest you back away,” I said. “Now.”

He backed up slowly.

Bowers refuses to be baited and isn’t intimidated by Dunn’s aggressive posturing. If he were, readers would lose faith in him and side with Dunn. Instead, Bowers remains calm and, by exhibiting poise and self-control, induces Dunn’s submission. (Also, by adding the speaker attribution “I said,” I inserted a slight pause in Bowers’ response, subtly adding to his status even more. To see the difference, read the sentence aloud with and without the pause.)

At the end of the scene when Dunn steps back, there’s no doubt in the mind of the reader who is in charge.
Readers will not empathize with a weak protagonist. They expect protagonists who have strength of conviction, moral courage and noble aspirations. It’s true, of course, that during the story the protagonist might be struggling to grow in these areas, but readers need to see her as someone worth cheering for along the way.

If you can spot weaknesses in your protagonist and are grappling with how to strengthen her, try one of these ways:

  • Have your protagonist sacrifice for the good of others. The sacrifice might be physical (stepping in front of a bullet), financial (anonymously paying another’s debt), material (volunteering for the Peace Corps) or emotional (forgiving someone for a deep offense).
  • Have her stand up for the oppressed. I’ve seen all too many authors try to show how “tough” their protagonist is by portraying her as cold or unfeeling—especially at a crime scene. Bad idea. Readers want the hero (or heroine) to be compassionate and life-affirming. Let’s say your female medical examiner is at a crime scene and one of the other cops gestures toward the corpse and quips, “They stab ’em; you slab ’em.” Your protagonist needs to uphold the dignity and value of human life. She might reproach the cop, or remind him of the victim’s grieving family. If you let her make light of something as precious as life itself, you’ll end up devastating her status.
  • Have her turn the other cheek. If someone slaps your protagonist and she looks the guy in the eye and refuses to fight back, her self-control raises her status above that of the attacker. Strength isn’t shown only by what a person can do, but by what she could do but refrains from doing. Self-restraint always raises status.

As your story builds toward its climax, the status of both your hero and your villain will also rise. The bad guy will become more and more coldhearted or unstoppable, and the good guy will need to summon unprecedented strength or courage to save the day.

Status has more to do with actions than motives, so even though the hero and villain have completely different agendas, you can raise the status of either one by giving him more 1) self-control, 2) courage and/or 3) resolve.

Remember, stillness is power, so if you decide you need to make a villain more imposing, try slowing him down. Show readers that he’s in no hurry to commit his evil deed—he has such high status that he can walk slowly and still catch the person fleeing frantically through the woods.

Villains become less frightening when they’re self-congratulatory or cocky. You actually lower a villain’s status by giving him the need to prove himself. Sadistic, chortling, hand-wringing villains aren’t nearly as unnerving as calm, relentless ones who are simply indifferent to the suffering of others.

If your story calls for multiple villains, try staggering their status levels so that the top-tier bad guy has the highest status and is therefore the most threatening and dangerous person for your protagonist to encounter at the story’s climax.

Let your protagonist enter the final showdown at a disadvantage—weaponless, injured, poisoned or exhausted from fighting his way past all the antagonist’s henchmen. An underdog who overcomes impossible odds is a hero we can believe in.

And one we will want to read about again.

This article was written by Steven James.

Willaims, 11:26

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