This is the first year my 3-year-old has really gotten Halloween, so we’ve spent October seeking out any excuse for him to wear his costume and spend the day yelling “Boo!” As a result, at an array of fall festivals, we’ve collected a countertop full of pumpkins of assorted shapes and sizes; a small glow-in-the-dark bucket of unhealthy snacks; and, for the writer in the household (that would be me), one great reminder about developing characters.
The lesson came at a children’s Halloween parade at a local park. Costumed kids and their parents congregated by the gazebo waiting for the festivities to start. An announcement was made that the kids were to march behind a giant basketball character named “Hoopster” (how or why Hoopster became the recipient of this honor remains unclear) into the center of town, where storefronts were offering trick or treating.
We were surrounded by princesses and Power Rangers, scarecrows and jungle animals. Many of the costumes were homemade, some looking a little haggard or missing accessories, but the kids wearing them were playing their parts. The ballerinas twirled and curtseyed. The transformers stomped and zoomed. The superheroes posed, karate chopped and kicked. My little guy beamed at all of them, his fire chief’s hat on his head and bullhorn in his hand, ready to come to the rescue at the first sign of smoke or a cat stuck in a tree.
And then, at last, the moment we’d been waiting for: Hoopster appeared.
The parade couldn’t start yet, though. The ball portion of his costume was still deflated, and he stood off to the side fiddling with the thing while the kids milled around restlessly. Hoopster couldn’t get his inflating tool to work, and began tapping parents on their shoulders asking if anyone had a coin to help get the thing going. Apparently Hoopster had not done a practice run before game time.
Finally, the giant basketball took its place at the front of the pack, and the children fell into line, excited for the parade. Then, my son looked up at me, frowning for the first time all day. He seemed skeptical.
“Basketballs don’t have legs,” he said.
“True,” I said slowly, looking around. What else was there to say? It hadn’t bothered him that transformers don’t wear sneakers or lions don’t carry blankies or scarecrows don’t lick lollypops. So what had changed?
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Developing Character So Readers Can Suspend Disbelief
Hoopster wasn’t really selling his costume, was he? He’d spent a pretty penny on an outfit that was actually a lot more over-the-top than anyone else’s. He’d probably felt like that was enough. But it wasn’t.
The problem wasn’t so much that Hoopster was having issues—most costumes have issues at some point, right? If he’d made a wisecrack about being left in the garage too long or even half-heartedly called out, “Oh no, how will I bounce now?” he probably could have saved face. But by letting the kids see that he was just a guy who couldn’t figure out how to direct the airflow into a big nylon sphere, he was inhibiting their ability to suspend their disbelief. His legs didn’t kill the authenticity; his lack of commitment to his character did.
What does this teach us about how to develop character? Well, a lot. Your character needs to be comfortable in his outfit from the very first scene. He needs to know how it fits, how it works, and who it makes him look like to everyone around him. And in order for him to pull that off, we as our characters’ creators need to know who they are, inside and out, from Page 1. We can’t let our own voices show through where we’re supposed to be writing as our characters. We need to commit to them, fully. We need them to commit to the story, fully. And only then can our readers commit fully, too.
Whether you’re writing a first draft or revising a complete story, as you work through scene by scene, make sure that your superhero has her mask tied tightly into place. Chapter 1 can’t show her off-kilter to the point that she hasn’t yet figured out that trick to keeping her cape from coming untied. And Chapter 10 can’t catch your cowboy without his hat or spurs because he got tired of messing with them and tossed them aside somewhere along the way.
You don’t want to let readers arrive for the parade to find that you haven’t yet fully inflated your lead characters. Make your characters sell the reality behind those costumes, however flawed they may be. If your characters truly believe that they are princesses, and behave as such, then your readers will be a lot less likely to notice—or care—that they’re wearing the wrong shoes or have lost the rhinestones out of their tiaras.