I don’t see much online on the subject of using metaphors in character development, so I’m sharing my process.
I’ve got this homeless character in the opening scene of my novel and she did something that surprised me. I thought she was just a crazy old lady, but she pulled a .357 on a Beemer guy who was going to dump oil in a dumpster she’d climbed into to retrieve a book. When I started the scene, I didn’t know anything but the fact that she was in a dumpster. By the time I was through writing the scene, I discovered that she can take care of herself, that she’s got a soft spot for strays, and she’ll dig through trash to get to good reading material.
I know why she’s on the streets–she’s trying to find a teenaged girl who ran away, but –that’s all I know. So I’m studying metaphors. Once I figure out what her life metaphor is, I’ll have a better handle on her character.
One way to look at it is to call it her paradigm. It’s a deeply held, unconscious belief which dictates how a person responds to life’s events. We all have this internal set of beliefs which guide us in our choices every day. Is the world a good or a bad place? Is life an uphill struggle, or a joyride? Is it a classroom, a confessional, a sacrificial altar, or a den of thieves? People growing up in the same household can emerge with different paradigms because each experiences things differently.
I know that Maggie (the homeless woman) has a positive paradigm; I also know that for her to be a compelling character she needs to grow, so there’s room for her metaphor to be altered by her experiences in the story. The metaphor that life is a classroom fits what I know of her character so far so I’m adopting that for now, although I’m pretty sure there’s more to it.
The girl she wants to find (Emily) is a different matter. The world’s been a dangerous place for her, so many of her decisions will be driven by a need for certainty. I’m basing this on what I’ve read by Tony Robbins, who asserts that we have six basic needs. The two core needs are certainty and significance, and according to my life coach, most people live their whole lives making sure these two needs are met, many times to the detriment of the other four needs: variety, connection, growth, and contribution. Maggie, I’ve just realized, is driven by her need to live a life that makes a difference. I want her character arc to move toward the other needs, so I’ll be planning my plot with that in mind since she’s my central character.
Emily has no thought for anything but survival. Right now she views life as a cross between a battlefield and a war game, like chess, in which she is a dispensable pawn. My goal for her character is for her to grow toward connection and significance, which she will find as she develops her art.