The Apostle James warned that “A double-minded man is unstable in all his ways.” For characters, being double-minded is a good thing.
A “double-minded” person has the quality of duality. That means that he is unstable, and the reader can never be quite sure what he will do under certain circumstances. Given this, the character’s choices might inspire the reader or dismay him. They might confirm the reader’s suspicions or shock him to the core.
Consider the following situation:
Beth’s eight-year-old daughter comes home from school crying and tells her, “My teacher touched me after school.”
Now, depending upon the kind of character that Beth is, she might do any of several things:
- 1) Beth might ask for the whole story and try to discover exactly what happened.
- 2) Beth might hug her daughter and ask that they pray together.
- 3) Beth might call 911.
- 4) Beth might decide to call the principal first.
- 5) Beth might grab a shot of whiskey to clear her mind. (Or smoke some crack.)
- 6) Beth might decide to try to ignore the problem.
- 7) Beth might get the handgun out of her bedroom.
- 8) Beth might decide to go confront the teacher personally.
- 9) Beth might go talk to the school board.
- 10) Beth might decide to hire a detective to spy on the teacher.
- 11) Beth might blame herself for letting a child wear hot pants to school.
- 12) Beth might blame her daughter for being “dirty flirty.”
- 13) Beth might ask her boyfriend to “take care of it.”
And so on.
Now, a bad writer will jump to the first possibility that pops into mind and begin writing the scene, but a better writer will consider the myriad possibilities and then pick a few. Perhaps Beth will grab her daughter and pray together, asking forgiveness if their actions perhaps tempted the teacher, and then praying that god will forgive him. But of course, that isn’t good enough for Beth. She thinks about calling her boyfriend, a thug fresh out of prison, but realizes that Bubba is the kind of guy who would tie a rope around the teacher’s neck and drag him for twenty miles on the back of his Harley. She might consider going to the authorities, but then recall how when she was abused as a child, the authorities considered it “your word against his,” and so her own father got away with it for years.
So she takes a drink to calm her nerves and thinks about it, then eventually pulls the gun from her drawer hoping to track down the teacher and make him confess.
Now, do you see what I’m doing? I have Beth wanting to forgive the teacher and kill him at the same time. I’m looking at her possible reactions, and I’m mixing several of them together so that Beth doesn’t do the first thing that comes to mind, she creates dozens of possible scenarios. In fact, with only the possible scenarios I’ve listed, there are literally hundreds of possible combinations of things that Beth can do.
So, let’s imagine that Beth goes to confront the teacher. By now, the school is nearly empty. Beth pulls her gun out and accuses the teacher who …
- 1) Denies that anything happened.
- 2) Blames the girl for “coming on to him.”
- 3) Sobs and begs forgiveness.
- 4) Tells Beth that he is glad she came, that he has been dreaming about her.
- 5) Offers Beth money to make the problem to go away.
- 6) Offers Beth even more money if she will sell her daughter to him.
- 7) Threatens Beth.
- 8) Has a heart attack from the mere shock of being accused.
- 9) Worries that the girl is schizophrenic.
- 10) Calls for help.
- 11) Dives out the nearest window.
- 12) Attacks and disarms Beth.
- 13) Pulls his own weapon and exchanges gunfire with her.
- 14) Talks reasonably with Beth, hypnotizing her.
Of course, you can imagine other things that he might do, but think about it. We now have two characters who are double-minded—ripe with possibilities. With just these two characters, there are literally thousands of combinations of events that could occur.
When you put complex characters in conflict, you’ve got a recipe for a powerful story, one loaded with ups and downs, with misconception and betrayals, with shocking surprises and dreaded possibilities.
So when you’re creating your characters and you’re wondering, “What happens next?” go ahead and consider the potential directions of the conflicts. Look for ways to mix possible directions so that your character has a complex reaction. Then twist the tale into delightfully unexpected directions.
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