In high school English classes, students are sometimes introduced to the terms round character and flat character. These same terms occasionally pop up during writing workshops, often accompanied by the statement, “I want to know more about So-and-so.” But as a piece of advice, “I want to know more about…” isn’t very helpful. Let’s assume the writer does as suggested and brainstorms pages and pages of backstory and character description—then what? Knowing more about a character doesn’t automatically result in a better story or even in a rounder character. The more needs something to do. It needs a purpose.
One possibility is to use this information as subtext for a scene. A great example of how this works can be found in Caille Millner’s story, “The Surrogate.” It was published in Joyland Magazine, where you can read it now.
How the Story Works
The premise of “The Surrogate” is pretty neatly summed up by its title and opening paragraph:
Cecily is six months pregnant with someone else’s child when her husband tells her that he wants a baby of his own. It’s not a complete surprise — if he never grew jealous of all the other babies she’s carried, she’d wonder.
The first thing we’re introduced to is Cecily and her husband’s home:
They live on the dusty edge of a desert city. The neighborhood is small, bleached-out, and quiet. Their house is a bright one-story with a chain-link fence in front and a little patch of yard out back. An arm’s length of space separates the houses on either side.
We’re also introduced to the woman whose baby Cecily is carrying:
Cecily is carrying this baby for Rebecca, a woman who has the most incredible smell. Whenever she sees her, Cecily closes her eyes and inhales deeply, trying to guess what’s in her perfume — is it cedar?
It must be cedar. Franco sometimes smells of it when he comes home after work. On Franco it’s mixed with the smells of sweat and tar, and on Rebecca it’s mixed with smells that are too nice for her to recognize, but she knows cedar when she sniffs it.
The difference in class between Rebecca and Cecily is clear—and the difference matters. Rebekah can take maternity leave from her job, but for Cecily surrogacy is a necessary source of income. Her husband often experiences year-long stretches of unemployment. This class difference is the context for the story—what is happening in the background.
It becomes subtext when it is put into action. This occurs throughout the story, but here is one particularly clear example:
“How’d you know you were ready for a baby?” Cecily blurts out. She’s surprised as soon as the words appear, and stares ahead at them, as if they were cigarette smoke.
Cecily senses Rebecca’s back straightening in the chair beside her.
“That’s a good question, Cecily,” she says, and it sounds to Cecily like she’s never thought about it before.
On the surface, Cecily’s question is pretty simple. If the story was stripped of its context and this bit of dialogue was all that we saw, the scene wouldn’t be very compelling. It’s interesting because of what lies behind the question—what Cecily is thinking about as she asks it. In Rebecca’s response, it’s clear that although she understands at least a little of Cecily’s life and context, she’s thinking about them in a different way—and she’s also thinking about other things, her own context. In the dialogue that follows, you can see the moments where the subtexts collide:
“I guess…it was always something I wanted?” Rebecca says. “Something Derek always wanted? We’d better want it, with everything we’re going through.” She chuckles.
They sit there for a moment.
“But I guess you’re always sort of ready, right?” Rebecca says. “Once you have your life together.”
“Hmm,” Cecily says.
Cecily is thinking about the obstacles that she’ll face to getting pregnant: giving up the income of surrogacy, providing for a child, the effect on her body, and the emotional consequences of a child. Rebecca is thinking about the fact that she’s using a surrogate and her own obstacles that have led her to this moment.
In some ways, the subtexts for each character overlap, and the characters are aware of this. But there isn’t so much overlap (they aren’t thinking about the same thing in the same way) that the tension dies. Conflict often arises out of moments in which character interact with different subtexts (different intentions or thoughts). These characters’ awareness of this difference in subtext–and inability to completely smooth over the resulting awkwardness, despite trying—is partly what makes the scene so compelling.
The Writing Exercise
Let’s create an opportunity for a collision of subtext, using “The Surrogate” by Caille Millner as a model:
- Identify the different contexts for each character. Choose a scene to create between two or more characters. What is going on in the background for each of them? Think about context like a green screen in a film. What is going on behind the actors affects how they act and how we understand what their actions. So, what is going on in your characters’ lives? What is their situation and backstory?
- Turn that context into action. As anyone who’s gone through workshop knows, backstory isn’t the same thing as drama. It needs to be put to work. In “The Surrogate,” Cecily needs money, and so she turns to surrogacy. Rebecca has money but can’t have a child, so she turns to surrogacy. Think about the context you’ve created for the characters. How do they act on it? What does it force them to do?
- Create complications from that action. What are the limitations that the action places on a character. For example, Cecily can’t have a child of her own when she’s carrying someone else’s baby. Or, what are the mental effects of the action. For example, Rebecca must accept a weird sort of enlargement of the self: it’s her baby, and so the womb it resides within is, from a particular point of view, also her womb. It’s a potentially uncomfortable relationship dynamic.
- Bring the different contexts together. Context becomes subtext when it informs how the character behaves and how we, the readers, understand that behavior. When two characters with different context experience the same moment, the way that subtext informs their reactions will often lead to different responses. So, two characters might see a child carrying a balloon and respond quite differently. Or, if two characters are talking about something, their different subtexts for the conversation can cause them to, essentially, be having two very different experiences. The key is to put two characters with different contexts together.
- Give the characters some awareness of what has happened. When the characters interact, and when their different subtexts are revealed, it can be useful to have at least one of the characters aware of this revelation that their contexts/subtexts are quite different. This is what “The Surrogate” does with both Rebecca and Cecily. There’s a sense that each is aware (if only vaguely) of why the other responds the way she does, and it makes the conversation awkward. They try to smooth it over, but the effort is not entirely successful. What happens when one of your characters tries to smooth over the awkwardness from realizing that she has a different context/subtext than the person she’s talking to?
The goal is to create suspense and drama from an encounter between two characters with different subtexts for the moment.