Every Sunday, the feature SHANNON MUIR’S MYSTERY OF CHARACTER on SHANNON MUIR’S THE PULP AND MYSTERY SHELF focuses on the art and craft of writing from Shannon’s perspective, or gives you insight on her process as an author.
This week features Shannon looking into when unresolved issues and loose threads surrounding characters can be effective.
This is an updated and combined version of three columns that Shannon Muir did for a sister site.
Authors set up details about characters so that the readers get to know about them for the story. Most of the time their backstories involve concrete details that sculpt them for the reader. However, there may be parts of the character that aren’t so neatly cleaned up. These are stories that rely on inner conflict of character, sometimes in concert with external conflict, and sometimes not.
The main character’s lingering doubts, feelings of failure, and similar things can drive plot. Readers go along to follow the adventure, while often seeing the character find personal resolution as part of the story. That’s not to say there couldn’t be cases where a character’s unresolved issues continue on for story after story as part of their general motivation for doing what they do. We see it in mystery stories, as well as superhero ones, just to name a few examples.
Often authors give characters specific mannerisms – or quirks – to make them memorable. They want to ensure that the way someone always straightens his time, or the particular way a woman always greets people, makes them stand out. But is this always good to do?
In my opinion, these quirks are best used if they directly serve the story. If they don’t, they should be subtle enough so not to as to detract from it. Some readers may enjoy a certain character quirk, while others may tire after a time. Don’t make these habits scream so loud that those who don’t enjoy seeing them every time get frustrated and decide not to complete a story.
Having said that, does it ever bother you when there are interesting ways a character behaves, but that are never explained? Sometimes it does for me, usually when characters just happen to have a skill set that advances the story that isn’t explained. However, when it comes to character quirks that don’t seem to exist for any reason to support the story, my view is mixed.
Characters that have unique and memorable traits aren’t bad in and of themselves. These mannerisms may be an author’s way of making sure characters aren’t easily confused and seem too much alike. However, when the character or characters behave in such a manner that suggests the question of wanting to find out why they are that way, and yet it is never answered – those are the times I become frustrated as a viewer or reader. At that point, I do find myself wanting an explanation because it distracts from the story at hand and makes a character memorable for all the wrong reasons.
A character’s unresolved issues or unique quirks may drive their character, and in fact don’t even need to be resolved or abandoned by the end of the book – it may be essential to their character that certain issues go unanswered – but they definitely should not come off as loose threads without explanation or purpose.
Until next time!