Friday, April 24, 2009

Questions to Reveal Character

One of the things I need to know kind of early in the process of writing a book is my turning points. I write to the turning points and acts, rather than to the end. The benefits of this are that I am writing three or four smaller stories within one larger narrative, and not having one long endless slog through a never-ending middle.

It is also the way to check and be sure that the events of the story are forcing the necessary character changes so that they will have undergone a true transformation by the end of the book. Which is why I am so married to the idea that plot is character—the external plot is often the construct an author uses to effect the internal change in their characters, which is where I think the true juice of the story is.

And I know all my turning points for this medieval French book—except the first one, which comes at about the 1/4 mark in the mss. That first TP is so important! It launches the character on their external journey, or if the character is already moving along that path, it ramps up the action, increases the urgency, or throws a major kink in the works.

Or it should, anyway. Mine? Not so much.

I have a really soft turning point, which is bugging me because it should be, at the very least, the moment the two forces in the novel, the protagonist and antagonist (or antagonistic force) cross swords and agree to duel

And I got nothin’. Well, there’s something there, I’m sure of it, I just have to find it.

Which is where these questions I mentioned the other day came in so handy. They are from a workshop Michael Hague gave at the RWA National Conference a couple of years ago. He suggests that the internal journey of a character is a transformation from persona (the construct that they show the world) to their essence (their true nature). Now, I’ve looked at these questions before, and they never really clicked for the Theodosia books or the Beastologist books. Maybe because those are series and the process happens throughout the course of bookS rather than A book. But boy, the questions clicked for me with this manuscript. Which is one of the reasons I like having a collection of writing processes and approaches up my sleeve, you just never know which one will coax which story into being.

So, onto the questions. The first two are ones I already ask myself, but the way he worded them triggered something this time. I think one of the reason these questions worked for me is because they echo something I do instinctively, but give it a bit more form and cohesion.

What is my character's longing? What is their deeply held desire they’re only paying lip service to, that they’re not pursing. Now some characters are so shut down or disconnected from their selves that they don’t even have a longing. Instead they have a need, a hole inside that must be filled.

And that hole is usually caused by the answer to the next question…

What is my character’s wound? What past traumas have shaped them and profoundly altered the way they see the world?

Third question, What is my characters belief? How has my character’s wound shaped his way of seeing the world? Of seeing other people? This is the one that really helped me this time because it gave me a sense of what the scenes needed to reveal about my character.

My character’s belief is that her only value or worth is in her usefulness as a tool to her organization. In fact, she clings to the fact that she’s a tool and uses it to disconnect from her emotions, her self. If she clings to the fact that she’s a tool—separate from the needs and desires other people are subject to, then she doesn’t have to admit they are lacking in her life, that she isn’t worthy of them.

This belief is used to keep fear and terror at bay.

The fourth questions is What is your characters’ identity? Which for me was answered in the belief question. She is naught but a finely honed, fully committed tool.

And the fifth question, What is your hero’s essence? When you strip away all the roles they play and the beliefs they protect themselves with, what are they at their core?

Now I have to admit to not being certain what essence was, so I rephrased it like this:
Who would my character be if she had the courage? If she wasn’t afraid of anything? It turns out my heroine’s essence is that she is a merciful, compassionate person who is being used for the purpose of judgment and punishment.

And then of course the story is about her movement from her persona to her essence, learning to step away from being a tool for a punishment she finds she doesn’t actually believe in.

Again, this doesn’t work for all stories, this is the first one of mine that it really generated an aha! moment for. Maybe it will be helpful to you at some point.


Vivian Mahoney said...

Great post! Thanks for sharing this process.

Robin L said...

Glad you found it useful, Vivian! Although I could have done a better job of proofing it, fer gawd sake!

Sherrie Petersen said...

Great questions!

Robin L said...

Thanks, Sherrie!

Anonymous said...

These are some of the best questions I've ever had to ask myself for characters...way better than the usual ones for character questionnaires.

Robin L said...

So glad you found them helpful, Anon!