Everyone behaves differently when he discovers that the new car he lent his brother is lying in a ditch off I-91. Does your protagonist console his brother over beers at the local pub or throw punches? Maybe he pulls at his hair and weeps?
Crisis exposes the nature of the beast, and our characters reveal who they are in the choices they make, particularly through their adrenalin-charged, knee-jerk responses to pressure.
The protagonist of Carol Birch’s Jamrach’s Menagerie has his head in a dream. Returning from an errand, thinking thoughts that place him elsewhere, he doesn’t register “the people vanishing, sucked as if by great breaths into doorways and byways, flattened against walls. [His] ears did not catch the sudden stilling of the Highway’s normal rhythms, the silence of one great communal breath.” But—
…when the impossible in all its beauty came walking towards me down the very middle of Ratcliffe Highway, why would I know how to behave? Of course, I’d seen a cat before. You couldn’t sleep for them in Bermondsey, creeping about over the roofs and wailing like devils. They lived in packs, spiky, wild eyed, stalking the wooden walkways and bridges, fighting with the rats. But this cat…
The point of view pulls back.
The Sun himself came down and walked on earth.
And ten-year-old Jaffy Brown’s narrative continues.
This cat was the size of a small horse, solid, massively chested, rippling powerfully about the shoulders […] I’d seen him somewhere, his picture in London Streets, over the river. He was jumping through a ring of fire and his mouth was open. A mythical beast.
Still the crisis does not don on eight-year-old Jaffy—
He drew me like honey draws a wasp. I came before the godly indifference of his face and looked into his clear yellow eyes […] He raised his thick, white dotted lips and smiled, and his whiskers bloomed.
I became aware of my heart somewhere too high up, beating as if it were a little fist trying to get out.
Nothing in the world could have prevented me from lifting my hand and stroking the broad warm nap of his nose […] A ripple ran through his right shoulder as he raised his paw—bigger than my head—and lazily knocked me off my feet […] There was, I remember, much screaming and shouting, but from a distance, as if I was sinking underwater. The world turned upside down and went by me in a bright stream, the ground moved under me, my hair hung in my eyes. There was a kind of joy in me, I do know that—and nothing that could go by the name of fear, only a wildness. I was in his jaws.
True, the scrappy young urchin had his head in the clouds. True, the scrappy young urchin had a substantial narcotic of denial coursing through his body. His dreamy disposition and denial are, in themselves, revealing. This is a person prone to becoming swept up in circumstances, one easily made a victim of circumstances (unlike those whose fear would have them crouching in alleyways). But putting these inferences aside, see the depth of Jaffy’s naivety, which is irrelevant of his age—“when the impossible in all its beauty came walking towards me… Nothing in the world could have prevented me from lifting my hand and stroking the broad warm nap of his nose.” This is a tiger’s snout we’re talking about, in case you haven’t read this wonderful novel (whose title, I suspect, has done it a marketing disservice).
After Jaffy’s daze-laced naivety is mistaken for courage (much like the Grimm Brother’s tailor is believed to have killed seven giants with one blow), Jaffy’s life makes a volte-face. Soon he will stand nose-to-nose with fiercer beasts and, eventually, before the worst monster imaginable. This story, though, is not about a protagonist who, rising to fill a hero’s shoes, finds courage. Jaffy will face his horror as the naïve boy who once stroked an exotic beauty. (Notice that character is congruent with plot.) In the greater sense (and irrespective of plot structure), Jaffy’s journey begins with this late-second-act encounter.
Carol Birch’s Jamrach’s Menagerie has all the bling of commercial genre fiction, coupled with the craftsmanship, substance, and innovation of literary fiction. No wonder the novel was short-listed for the 2011 Man Booker Prize.
Crisis under pressure reveals a character’s deepest truth, and when that truth is harmonious with theme and plot, a work of art enters the world.
In Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth, Tom’s wife Agnes dies in childbirth and Tom abandons his newborn son, leaving him to lay in the forest on the cold loose earth of Agnes’ grave. When his two older children protest, Tom says, “We have no milk… whatever we do he will die.”
Destitute and with no hope on the horizon, he walks through the night as Martha and Alfred attempt to keep pace. Memories of his wife visit him, and Tom turns to relate these to a partner who is no longer there. When thoughts of wolves and foxes picking up the baby’s scent begin to haunt him, he realizes his error.
Tom retraces his path, this time in a rising panic, and finally reaching the clearing with the mound of freshly dug earth, he finds it’s too late, the baby is gone. Unable to cope with his failure, Tom searches the underbrush and continues searching in ever-broadening circles until he becomes lost. Only when his two children grow faint does Tom pause, and his search comes to a halt when his body gives out in exhaustion.
That’s when Tom sees a woman walking across the clearing. She approaches him, kisses him on the mouth, and opens her cloak to reveal her naked body. “What little capacity he had left for rational thought vanished, and he let his body take charge.”
In this example, like the one from Jamrach’s Menagerie, we have a protagonist in denial, numbed and muddled and undone by grief. Still, Tom let his body take charge. He acted when he allowed this woman to make love to him.
What do his actions amid extreme pressure say about Tom? Do they mean he is unfaithful… heartless… horny… what?
It could be said that, reduced to his primitive self, Tom wants to live. Tom wants to hope, to believe in a future. Earlier, with his higher reasoning intact, Tom had chosen to leave his son to die. His higher reasoning assured him that all is futile, life is cruel, and good men are denied their dreams. Whether or not he still feels this way remains to be seen, but in Tom’s core, through his actions, we see that when everything is stripped from him, he is a man who wants to believe in the fulfillment of desires, in the culmination of every satisfaction the world has to offer.
An integral force to the shaping, exposing, and remolding of character, action is more than the means to an end. And here again, Tom’s character is congruent with plot, as he is a man with a dream, and the plot of The Pillars of the Earth revolves around his longing to build a magnificent cathedral.
Pressure is essential to plot and to character development. Choices made when risks are low mean little. If our characters choose to tell the truth when telling a lie would gain them nothing, their choices are irrelevant. But if our characters insist on telling the truth when lying would save their relationships or reputations, our readers recognize an aspect of their nature through the values demonstrated in our characters’ behaviors.
As he chooses, he is.