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Your Character’s Code

May 20, 2011 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified May 20, 2011

A discussion with one of my clients had me thinking of characters today. A book that I’m reading also has me considering characters and their ways.

You probably know all about your main characters, especially the protagonist and antagonist.

You know their backgrounds and histories, their likes and dislikes, their dreams and motivations and trigger points.

Do you also know their codes?

Not secret handshakes, not unless you’re writing YA. But the codes they live by. Maybe die by. The code that has them making decisions that will ultimately hurt them even as you give them no other option because of the kind of people they are.

A sheriff from the Old West had a code—get the bad guy but don’t harm women and children. Modern cops have a similar code, though with the modern stories, writers may intentionally allow their lawmen to kill innocents in their quest to bring the bad guy to justice.

Other men and women in stories have their codes as well. They have boundaries they refuse to cross, sometimes forever and sometimes only until they’re pushed beyond endurance. They have actions they refuse to take and other actions that they must always attempt.

They have codes of behavior, these characters of ours. And if they don’t, they should. They should have mental or emotional contracts with themselves that govern their behaviors. They need to know how far they’ll go, what they’ll do to get that far, what they’ll do if going that far doesn’t accomplish their goals for them, and how far beyond they will allow themselves to step.

Most of us are never pushed beyond our ultimate boundaries; we don’t think we’ll even get close to them.

But characters need to be forced into places and decisions they said they’d never explore, never wander into, never truly imagine.

Our characters have to more than imagine the results if they exceed their own boundaries—they actually have to step beyond the point of no return. They have to fall or jump or be pushed into what for them is no-man’s-land. They have to not only go beyond the place and the actions they promised themselves they’d never step into, but they must do it and then negotiate through an unknown and unwelcome land, all the while knowing they’ve failed their own tests and betrayed their own standards.

They have to proceed with the rest of their duties knowing they’ve failed at one of the most critical.

Imagine all the mileage you’ll be able to get out of that one failure; a man who fails to uphold his own standards has fallen far indeed.

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What does this, this failure to live up to personal standards, mean for your characters and your story? How do you make this serve the drama you’re writing? How does this influence the reader?

Readers aren’t looking for common reactions, for what a regular man or woman would do. They want to know how a character will act and react when faced with the unexpected or unbelievable or the feared. They want to see how a character behaves when he finds himself doing something he never suspected he’d ever do. Something so repellant to him that he actually made a compact with himself to keep from doing that very thing that he couldn’t keep from doing.

Take a woman who hits a pedestrian in the middle of the night. Would she call the police and confess? Most honest or moral people would. But what if you gave your character a reason that made it impossible for her to call the police? What if she was drunk because she’d just been to the wake of a good friend, maybe a long-time cop on the small-town police force?

Maybe she wasn’t drunk but fell asleep at the wheel. But maybe she used to drink and her husband’s going to think she has returned to her old habits and she fears that he’ll leave her, as he said he would if she ever started drinking again.

Maybe she has three teenagers she’s always lecturing about combining driving with talking on the phone and she was talking when she hit the pedestrian.

Or, maybe she kills a man but it’s not an accident. Maybe she goes after the man who attacked her daughter because he got off with no jail time. Is revenge part of her code, the unspoken mother’s code, or has she gone beyond what she ever imagined she would, could, do?

Your main characters, especially your protagonists, have a code. One character’s code might say that he doesn’t get involved with needy women. It may say that he doesn’t ever resort to violence, no matter what the provocation. A woman’s code may say that she doesn’t meddle in her ex-husband’s business, even if she’s the perfect woman to smooth the way for him. Your lead character may have sworn off helping his shadowy government agency, even if his failure to help means national-wide destruction.

The character’s code may be only in his head, but it influences his actions. It may keep him from taking a job he’d been eyeing or keep him from moving across the country or away from a certain type of woman.

The clauses of this self-contract may or may not be spelled out as such, but the reader will know what the character will and will not do. And when your character breaks his own code, both character and reader will feel the impact.

Breaking the code will cost. It will cost peace of mind. It may also cost a character his freedom or the admiration and respect of his friends.

Friends can empathize with another’s code, but they don’t feel the importance of it. And they certainly don’t feel the dismay when the code is broken. How can they? If they have not drawn a line in the sand, a line against these same dark desires and base actions, how could they possibly understand the horror when another steps over that line?

Either the friends will not understand the impact on the character for what he has done, or they will feel a great betrayal and not understand why the character took the steps he took.

Thus the character feels his own guilt for betraying his code, and his closest friends turn against him as well.

Even if he has good reason to break his code—and you’ll have created that good reason in order to raise the tension and the stakes—he still may be traumatized, still may find it hard to forgive himself.

This unforgiveness will, of course, lead to more behaviors that he never thought he would undertake, and the tension will rise and conflict with friends—and with self—will increase even more.

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Think about your characters’ codes. Write them down and refer to them as you give your characters actions and  opportunities to go beyond ordinary responses.

Give your antagonist a code as well. Who is she? What is she willing to do to make her life the way she wants it? What is she unwilling to do? What will you force her to do that shatters her perceptions of herself and her limitations?

The code will include those actions the character will take and those he promises he’ll never attempt. That is, the character’s code will have both proscribed activities and actions that the character promises to never engage in. The list will also include both proactive and reactive elements, those actions that a character will always engage in and those that he will step into when provoked or when the circumstances call for action.

A few examples to include in your codes—

Never again kill

Never shoot a gun

Never raise hands in anger

Defend women and children

Defend the boss, no matter what he says or does

Defend the president

Never tell company secrets

Never betray the spouse in word or deed

Always believe what children say

Trust the best friend

Trust no one

Never lie (or never lie to a specific person)

Never steal, never defraud

Always listen to the explanation

Always look for the best solution rather than the easiest

Always own up to embarrassing actions

It’s easy to see how a character’s break with his code could destroy his life. Betraying his code could be a betrayal of self. It could be a betrayal of ideals or of those he loves.

He could lose faith in himself, be so disgusted that he makes new vows or a new code. Breaking his code of behavior could set his friends or family against him. It could put him or those he loves in physical danger.

But breaking a tightly held code also raises the tension and stirs conflict. And this drives your story.

Look for ways to make your lead characters break their personal codes. Push them beyond what they ever wanted to do, beyond what they’re comfortable with, beyond what others will consider acceptable behavior.

Force them to make choices that they don’t agree with but have no way out of.

Twist their arms to make them do what they shouldn’t or wouldn’t under normal circumstances.

Then make those characters stronger or more vulnerable or loving or more understanding of others because of what they’ve been forced to do.

Don’t just make them bend a bit. Change them as they face who they thought they were and discover a person of different strengths, different depths.

There are many ways to drive conflict and tension with your characters’ codes . . .

Make the cowboy’s code (or the lawman’s, mom’s, employee’s, best friend’s, or the lover’s code) work for your characters and your stories. Play with the options of failing to live up to a personal code. Explore what happens when a character sticks to his code when abandoning it would have saved his wife or child or job.

Develop character codes, use them, weave them into your scenes, and make your characters either regret or be thankful for the code they hold to.

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