Thursday, June 17, 2010
“Can I have this, Mommy?”
“Just trust me, the answer is no.”
“I don’t know. Hush.”
And if you are a parent of any 4 year old, you know this dialogue very well. You can tell by their voice when that dreaded question is going to be popped and watch out, you just might do some popping yourself!
But as novelists, this question is allowed and should be asked at an alarming rate. Because to truly understand our characters and their reasons to act, we must ask the age old question.
When I started my women’s fiction novel (insert title here- literally!) in early late April/ early May, I wanted to take the time to build my characters. To get to know them and just what makes them tick. Because only through knowing that, will I understand how they will try or lack of trying to control whatever situation is thrown at them.
I am a SOTP writer. I like to wing it and see where it will take me. But even if you are a seat of the pants writer, this little exercise won’t take away from any creative energy, in fact it will actually give you a better game plan and help you from getting lost in the middle, unsure where to take the story.
Jenna Hutch, married, and pregnant with another man’s baby. Conceived before the wedding. Husband does not know.
Fear of commitment drove her to make a fatal mistake on the eve of her wedding.
She is fearful her husband will one day not love her and leave her for another woman.
Her father dumped her mother when Jenna was a child, leaving her for another woman.
Because her mother drank and did not show her husband love.
Ha, here is one of the answers I was searching for when I was drawing Jenna. This is what makes Jenna act the way she does. Her biggest fear is that someday her husband will stop loving her and Jenna does not want to lose her husband like her mother lost her father. She is driven to keep her husband’s love, to the point of never telling her husband about the baby that isn’t his. Because she saw what losing her father’s love did to her mother, and she will not turn into the woman her mother is.
"I don't know!"
"Yes you do, why?"
"I don't know!"
And on and on she will go until she hits the root of the problem and you know what, she is always (ok nearly, no one is perfect!) right! That is what we need to do with our characters. They can't answer "I don't know", because they do know, you just have to drill it out.
All through my story Jenna slips deeper and deeper into the pit she never wanted to enter. And the deeper she slides, the worse her situation gets.
All because of that little tidbit I discovered about her when I was creating my character sketch.
I even did an outline on Jenna’s mother. Why she drank, why Jenna thinks she pushed her dad away. I found out what made Jenna’s husband tick. Though he didn’t play as big a role in the story as I originally planned, I still needed to understand why he acted a certain way. Finding out that he was adopted and was lied to his entire life and found out about it after his parent’s death played an important role in the story. He values complete honesty and Jenna is lying to him. So when she finds out he despises liars, it sends her into another tail spin to never tell him about the baby for fear she will lose him.
I had to know my characters before I started this novel. I didn’t want to go into it blind and not understand their motives. But I also wanted to know what they looked like. Having a visual image of my characters before me was extremely helpful in picturing them. Visualizing the facial expressions or their reactions. And actually as the novel grew, I stopped looking at the pictures as their image took over my mind and I saw and understood them better.
Understanding what your characters look like can be extremely helpful in writing them. Visualizing what they are wearing and the like can make the crafting and showing of the story that much easier. (Refer to Krista’s post, Avoiding Bare Walls and Three Sided Houses, if you would like more excellent information. )
Don’t be afraid to ask the “why?” question. It just might take you deeper and help you understand your characters that much better. Dig deep, the deeper you go, the more realistic your characters will become.
I want to share a small excerpt with you, a section that wouldn’t have been possibly unless I truly understood my character, but before, what is the big WHY question your character faces? I would love to hear about it, and maybe do a little brainstorming if you need to!
Home has and always will the same. The green grass outside the front porch, its arms welcoming all who come and enter to be filled with peace.
But the funny thing with images is that they are just that. A persona. A glimpse into a perfect world that hides its warts with surprising agility.
I parked my car beside Dad’s two ton pickup and stepped out into the warm afternoon air. Summer in the high desert of Oregon could be brutal, but today was the perfect combination of an overhanging cloud and a kiss of a breeze feathering my hair.
The cotton less cotton woods, Dad nurtured and babied for as long as I could remember, cast a tall shadow over the house I had called home for eighteen years. Their green leaves crackling gently.
Three white crosses all bearing names I didn’t need to see to know, sat at pristine angles, burrowed into the soil beneath the tree.
I turned away. The outside of my life was just like that cross. Pristine and white, standing straight, but dig deep enough and like my mother’s obsession with those symbols, my life was just as tormented.