Round Characters

As some of you know, Cathy and I have two raised beds in a community garden. The garden is along a busy road and highly visible. This may explain, at least in part, why it’s tempting for someone to steal vegetables. No one has taken anything from our beds, perhaps because they’re at the rear of the garden, but still it saddens me to know that others have suffered loss. I can only hope that whoever is committing these thefts is someone who desperately needs the food. I want to believe this because I don’t want to believe the opposite—that someone is taking just because they can.

This community garden was an Eagle Scout’s project, and it’s been such a welcome addition. One of its objectives was to build a stronger sense of community. We’ve met and enjoyed conversations with a number of our fellow-gardeners. It’s also been glorious to watch the individual beds put forth their array: the red tomatoes, the purple eggplants, the yellow sunflowers, the orange pumpkins, the lush green of squash vines and pole beans, the magenta stems of Swiss chard.

Gardening takes a certain amount of faith. You put your seed in the ground and trust that it’ll grow. To plant in a community garden requires an additional degree of trust—trust in your fellow citizens not to take what isn’t theirs, trust in the decency of your neighbors.

When it comes to writing fiction, a trust violated can often be the impetus for narrative. Our characters become more interesting when they knowingly or unknowingly deceive or betray. Our better angels don’t make very interesting characters unless they step out of character and commit acts that create narrative momentum. In other words, the main characters in fiction have to be capable of moving a narrative forward because at least temporarily they allow themselves to not be completely angelic.

Likewise, satanic characters quickly become boring if they have no other aspects to their personalities. Main characters who are evil and only evil have no room to evolve and therefore are incapable of dimension and surprise. They are in the end who they were in the beginning. In this way, they’re flat characters, and we’re looking for the round characters, the ones we find difficult to define.

It’s really simple. Interesting characters are those who are a little bit of this and a little bit of that. A good person compromised by a character flaw, perhaps, or a bad person who also demonstrates something we wouldn’t expect—an inclination toward sympathy, maybe, or an appreciation of beauty.  Maybe that’s why I choose to think of the garden thief as someone who’s food-deprived and in need. A good person driven by necessity to commit a bad act. A little of this and a little of that. When we write fiction, we need to think about what pushes our main characters in certain directions and what pulls them in others. Round characters are interesting because we haven’t seen them before. They’re unique in the contradictory layers of motivations that they hold within them.

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