Jackie’s Character Defining Epiphany

Never let it be said that I am one to dwell (actually I do dwell but I am trying not to do so today). The R has happened, I am now officially over it. Moving right along.

And I am moving right along to a little epiphany I had while having coffee with an awesome writing friend last week. There I was, moaning about my R and generally having a good vent, and the conversation moved on – as it does with writers – to our latest WIPs. Well, I don’t know about you but I could bore for New Zealand on the subject of my WIP. My poor friend probably couldn’t get a word in edgeways about hers, I was too busy hogging the conversation with mine. Anyway, I digress…

This is my chess player WIP I’m talking about and it’s a holiday fling/unexpected baby story. Now, the problem with these is that in order for the baby to happen you have to get the h&h together early (duh). And I could not get my h&h together. Lots of sexual tension but they just weren’t feeling it – she wasn’t feeling it actually. So my friend asked me a very sensible question. “Why would she sleep with him?” Simple huh? And you know what? All I could think of was ‘because he’s hot’. Can anyone see the dreaded ‘sex without emotion’ trap opening up to swallow me??

So, what I had to do was to think of a reason she would sleep with him. Why him, out of all the other hot guys in the world? Why is he the one who really floats her boat? What is it about him? And in thinking about this guy, I suddenly realised a problem that I have got into in the past year or so. I couldn’t think of why the heroine would sleep with this guy because I hadn’t defined him enough. He was hot, he was cerebral, he liked playing chess but that was about it. And that wasn’t enough to make him special to the heroine.

And this is my problem. I’ve learned a lot of craft in the past year and to be honest, sometimes it paralyzes me. I’ve got my conflict simmering away in the back of my mind because I’m now deciding this before I write, and when I’m writing that vital first chapter I’m thinking ‘now, here’s this character’s conflict, how does that make him the person he is today? How does he act? What does he think?’. So off I go, writing away, and then I write something down like ‘He always hated people who were late’. Nice and definitive and – more importantly – character defining. But then, Jackie thinks ‘hmmm, would his conflict make him hate people who are late? Or wouldn’t he mind? I don’t know’. And so I delete it so I can keep my options open, just in case it turns out that in fact, he doesn’t mind people who are late. Can you see my problem here? Every one of these little sentences that define character and I am deleting them because I don’t know whether that’s how they would act or not. Which is why, when I’m halfway through, I run into the heinous problem of not knowing how my characters would act in a certain situation because I haven’t defined them enough! Nightmare.

I like to keep my options open, that’s why I’ve been doing it. What if I need the character to not mind someone being late? If I don’t define it, then I can adjust it later. But you know what I’m doing? Dr Jax pointed it out to me – I am tweaking the character to suit the conflict. Making them be who I want them to be and not who they are. And in what are supposed to be character driven stories this is not a particularly good thing to do.

Another part of my worry is that perhaps the reader/editor won’t accept a character’s beliefs given their particular conflict. Thing is, at this point, I know everything about the character but the reader doesn’t. All they know is what you choose to tell them. Hey, if your hero hates people being late then as far as they’re concerned he does. They’re not thinking ‘hmmmm, not sure about that given his conflict.’ As long as you give him a good enough reason for hating people who are late, then that’s all good as far as the reader goes.

Which brings me to the part that I am hoping will go much better for me. If I define who my characters are – or at least signpost – in that first chapter, authoritatively and with confidence (not ‘sometimes he didn’t like people being late’ or ‘he kind of got annoyed with people being late’. Try ‘he hated it when people were late’) then I will know how they act in certain situations later on. I don’t need to go ‘wow, what would he do here?’ and get stressed about the hundred different ways he could act because I left my options open. There is only one way he would act. The heroine is late and so the hero, because I told people in that first chapter that he hates people who are late, is annoyed with her. I don’t need to think ‘now, will he be annoyed? Or wouldn’t he mind?’. Nope, he’s annoyed.

Now, I do think about the mss that did well a lot. What did I do right that time and not in all the others? For the Hammer Pants that won that contest, I’m pretty sure part of it was because I defined the hero and heroine very strongly in those first five pages. Now I wrote that not caring about conflict, not worrying about keeping my options open. And clearly that worked. Of course, I ran into huge problems in chapter two because I hadn’t got the conflict right but hey, I had two great characters in those first five pages!

So, what I need to do is find the happy medium. Have an idea of the conflict, but start with the characters. And when conflict and character meet up, tweak the conflict not fiddle with the character!

Dr Jax gave me this little thing piece of advice that probably many of you know already from school/university etc but I think it’s great for writing. It serves as a good reminder to me that my job is to tell the reader about my characters right from the get go, so they will then want to read on, and do it in as clear and obvious a way as possible:

Tell them what you’re going to tell them. Tell them. Then tell them what you’ve told them. 🙂

12 thoughts on “Jackie’s Character Defining Epiphany”

  1. Jeese Jackie, first off sorry to hear about the R, but you’re right, let’s just say bugger that and move on…

    Now, I also totally sympathise with you on the whole conflict/character, chicken/egg thing…Just reading your post brings back hideous memories of what a nightmare I had starting my last story. Suddenly I was questioning every damn thing my characters were doing and deleting and rewriting and then wondering if the first version was better, and etc, etc… I dug myself into a hole the size of the Grand Canyon.

    How did I get out? In the end I had to say, forget those first three chapters, I’ll fix them later, I have to just write myself into this story. Sometimes the real conflict isn’t clear until you’ve got to know your characters. For me the characters come first and defining their conflict too much at the beginning can stop it evolving, because let’s face it their initial conflict isn’t going to be nearly as deep and complex as conflict they have at the end… Hence your heroine might just sleep with the hero because he’s hot but give her a reason to do that. ie, her last boyfriend totally undermined her confidence and she’d persuaded herself that sleeping with this guy is gonna restore it. He’s not special, he’s just one of the many hot guys out there to her. Although of course once they do sleep together, things are gonna get more complicated not less, cos what she hasn’t factored in is his motivations and suddenly he’s not just another hot guy… etc.

    To paraphrase a certain great Kevin Costner movie. Just keep building those characters (give them enough initial conflict to get the sparks flying), and then their ‘real’conflict will come (no pun intended!)

    Best of luck!

  2. Heidi – The R was for So You Think You Can Write. But yeah, I can write so bugger that. 🙂
    I think you’re right re conflict/character. I am certainly getting too wound up about the conflict part of it. I have to write my way in too and perhaps I should just stop the second guessing and do that. I do find having some idea of what the conflict might be helps give me direction but I think I need stop thinking about it so much.

    As to my heroine, I see what you’re saying. Sex without emotion has been the reason for my last R (excluding SYTYCW) so I really have to get on top of that one. Anyway, my heroine had a lot of unconscious reasons but not much in the way of conscious ones which is what the reader needs to know. I think I’ve got that sussed now though. Hopefully. Haven’t written it yet though so it may change!
    Yay for Kevin Costner! 🙂

  3. I’m working on this book and I’m trying to force the characters into this conflict I have. Or force this conflict around these characters. It’s just a mess.

    I need to be more faithful to who my characters are and trust that they will lead me the right way.

  4. Julia – yes, that’s what I’ve been doing. What I think I need to do more and what Heidi’s suggesting is just write the book and see what happens when you get into it. You can tweak the conflict, it’s the characters that count. It’s not easy though eh?

    Lacey – it’s ONE of the problems. No doubt I shall have more in due course. 🙂

  5. Great post and equally great responses.

    Came across a Japanese proverb somewhere recently & thought of you (I read way too much to remember sources but hope to god I didn’t read it on some of your earlier postings or I’m going to look a right berk)

    ‘fall down seven times, stand up eight’

    Think this is defining.

  6. Hey Jackie,

    What an incredibly clever and insightful friend you have (LOL!!). Maybe you should arrange a regular coffee date with her? I imagine she’s wishing she could have epiphanous moments too (like right now!).

  7. Louise – Isn’t she a fantastic friend? 😉 I would love to have a regular coffee date and this time I promise not to talk incessantly about the WIP! Bring on the epiphanies I say!

Comments are closed.