Yeah, I’m finding I’m having lots of lightbulb moments with my chess ms. In fact, I’m beginning to think that my chess story is becoming a bit of a watershed ms. I am learning so much with this one. I knew at the beginning of the year that it was proving to be quite a learning experience but it’s becoming even more of one now. Maybe it’s because I’m taking my time with it and really thinking about it. Or maybe it’s because my weaknesses are so much clearer now and I am working to fix them. I’m not sure. What I do know is that this story WILL be much stronger than anything I have written to date and that can be put down to the fact that I know my characters. This time round I have thought about their pasts in great detail and if there’s something I don’t know about them that I need to know, I can actually tell when that moment is and can stop and think about it.
What do I mean? Well, for example, whenever I am introducing a bit of conflict and find myself writing the same thing over and over again without really capturing what it is I want to get across, it’s usually because I don’t know what it is I’m trying to say! A specific example may be: ‘He reminded her of her parents. Their lies, their judgements, the way they made her feel small’.
This does tell you something about her conflict. She had issues with her parents, they lied and judged her and made her feel small. But there are some questions unanswered: what did he do to make her think of her parents? What lies did her parents tell and did they tell them to her or to each other? What about their judgements? Did they judge her or each other? And what made her feel small? The lies or the judgements or both? And why did that make her feel small?
Obviously you don’t answer all those questions immediately, they are revealed as the book goes along, but what you have to do as a writer is know the answers to the questions. And what I think really builds the characters, and what I have NOT been doing, is having an example to illustrate the answer.
So if her parents had lied to her, thinking about a specific lie at a specific time by a specific person, can tell you so much more about a character and their conflict that some vague generalisations. Example: When she was ten, her beloved cat went missing and her mother told her that the animal ran away from home. However that night, when she was supposed to be a asleep, she got up to get a glass of water and spotted her father in the backgarden digging a hole, her cat lying dead on the grass next to it.
Doesn’t that tell us so much more about her and her parents and their relationship? And also gives us insight into the motivations of her parents too. It tells us she had a pet she loved. That her mother lied (to protect her maybe?) to her about what happened to it. That her father was in on it. And that by burying it at night when they knew she was alseep, they were trying to hide the cat’s death from her. Perhaps this is a terrible moment for the heroine. Perhaps finding out that her parents are not always truthful causes her to subconsciously be suspicious of anything they might say. What is certain is that it gives us more information than ‘her reminded her of her parents. Their lies, their judgements….etc’.
It’s those little snapshots of pivotal moments in the characters lives that really – for me at least – build up a great picture of who that person is and what in their past might had led them to think the way they do. Of course, what I’m missing from that example and what it is just as important as the situation itself, is how the heroine acts in response to it. Did she not say anything to her parents about her cat or did she confront them?
So what helps you build character? Anyone got any useful examples?