Character Lightbulbs!

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?

14 thoughts on “Character Lightbulbs!”

  1. Jackie, fab post!

    My characters come all ways. Some fully formed with angst to spare right from the get go. Some I have to dig into to get information.

    I think a good example of the oddness of my character development is in HPTP. I knew I was doing a hero who was black, I knew he was French, and I knew that he was going to fall in love with a woman with scars. I didn’t know why I knew all this, but I did. Then I thought his conflict was one thing, and I got a nagging feeling it wasn’t.

    Then his real conflict hit me in the back of my mind, and I was horrified because it was just Too Bad. But it was right. And as that formed in my mind, the heroine’s issues and scars began to make sense, and I could see how it all fit with his.

    How unhelpful and crazy is that??

  2. Maisey – thanks! Oh yes, I think it happens to different writers in different ways. Some people don’t know until they actually write it – which is me most of the time too. In fact, I thought my chess guy’s conflict was one thing and then, as I came to the black moment, I realised it wasn’t that after all! Weird. 🙂

  3. A smidge off topic here, but something in your post hit on something I’ve been struggling with lately. The reactions of the characters to events is so revealing. And I have been rushing through all those lovely emotion filled and revealing moments. How your heroine reacts to her parents hiding the dead cat is key to understanding her, for both writer and reader.

    I’ve gone back to a couple of scenes that were just not quite right and that is what they were missing in their different ways. It leaves the scene feeling unfinished.

  4. Nice post Jackie.
    A question though – do you include that little snapshot in the story or is that just background info you keep on file?

  5. Julia – that’s awesome! And yes, you’re absolutely right. Her reaction is pretty much the key to the scene. Because how that reaction is received will determine how she acts in the future. For example, if she decides to confront her parents and they continue to lie, she might decide that confrontation never gets her the truth (if this happens more than once). Or two, if confronting her parents gets them to admit the truth, she might then decide that confronting a lie is the only way to get the truth. Yay for the breakthrough huh?

    Kerrin – For me it depends on the moment. If it’s vital for the reader to understand the character’s motivation, then I reckon you include the snapshot. If it’s not so vital and your word count is already huge maybe not so much. I actually included a snapshot moment that isn’t vital in one of my chapters but the CPs particularly liked it, because they identified with it themselves and it revealed more about the heroine. It’s a judgement call in other words. 🙂

  6. Another great post, Jackie =) I’ve also been guilty of introducing conflict and not really capturing what I wanted to get across to the reader.

  7. Lacey – Thanks! It’s a tough one eh? I’ve come to recognise that if I haven’t introduced the conflict element in a couple of sentences then it means I actually don’t know I’m trying to say. Which usually indicates I haven’t nailed down the conflict yet. So when that happens, I stop writing and go away and think about it. 🙂

  8. Great post jackie thanks for sharing! Lightbulb moments are to be treasured IMHO. Unfortunately for me they don’t happen often enough – lol!

    The more I do of this writing lark, the more I feel we need to be pysiotherapists rather than writers. ;o) Caroline x

  9. I’m exhausted and about to switch off for the night but had to comment on this post because it was awesome. I really think it’s the little things like this that make a strong, unforgettable book 🙂

  10. I bow to your awesome analysis Jax!

    I think this is also the reason why we must keep the conflict singular and straightforward, with H/h actions and reactions reflecting the same. If more than a single conflict I think we’ll be left wondering – as to..if a particular reaction is because of the situation, or conflict 1, or conflict 2..etc !

    This was what I got as a lightbulb after reading your post…which in turn – is a problem area on the current novella 🙁 aaargh.. don’t they say that identifying the problem is the first step to the solution..

    So.. I hope the solution also comes in lightning flash 😉

  11. Caroline – funny you should say that because that’s exactly what an ed said to me once!

    Rach- thanks m’dear! Yes, I think so too.

    Ju – yes, that’s exactly my problem too. Too many conflict strands and it becomes difficult to figure out how your character should react in a certain situation. But yes, identifying the problem is the first step. The solution will come. 🙂

  12. Yes, EXACTLY that. It reminds me of a quote I have hanging on my office wall, one I copied from Donald Mass’s book. It has to do with ‘finding the universal in the particular.’ And I think this is exactly what he was referring to. Great post, Jackie!

Comments are closed.