Knowing My Characters

The more I explore this writing stuff, the more I learn how much I don’t know, or can do better.

I’ve recently come across two techniques that help me probe deeper into my main character and discover new things about her, new insights that add rich texture to her, to her relationships, and to the story.

In his new book, Conflict & Suspense, James Scott Bell writes, “The stakes in an emotionally satisfying novel have to be death.” These include physical, professional, and psychological.

My current work is about a female attorney, Emily Peyton, in the 1880s. In the main conflict in the book, her first trial, she defends a man accused of murder. She faces both professional and psychological death. A conviction would mean she failed as an attorney and would damage, if not destroy, her confidence in her ability to practice the profession she loves. In her professional career, Emily must overcome the prejudices of a male-dominated world. To lose the trial would give credence to all those who say the law is no profession for a woman. A conviction also adds a burden of guilt over having her client face the gallows for a crime she believes he didn’t commit.

Randy Ingermanson teaches the importance of our characters having internal conflicts. Such conflicts follow the character throughout the story and present emotional dilemmas she must overcome. These internal conflicts are identified through value statements, core beliefs that drive her. These beliefs are best identified through “Nothing is more important than…” sentences, such as:

Nothing is more important to Emily than being accepted as an attorney.

Nothing is more important to Emily than seeing justice prevail.

The internal conflict arises when these value statements collide. Emily’s value of being accepted as an attorney conflicts with her value to see justice prevail when she risks her career to do all she can to have her client acquitted.

The keys to the value statements are they must be equally strong and, at some point in the story, they must come into conflict, forcing the character to make a choice.

What techniques have you found helpful in developing your characters?

3 Replies to “Knowing My Characters”

  1. Conflict is clearly the biggest driver in any story, and can occur on many levels. I always try to look at what my characters are trying to achieve (so I can keep the story moving) and what their motivation is to get there. That helps me to keep a grip on a character, especially when I’m writing multiple POVs.

    I liked your ‘nothing is more important…’ technique too, and will definitely run it past some of my characters. The way you’ve boiled it down with Emily gives a clear framework for how the story will run, and I’m interested to see how she will resolve the conflict.

  2. Henry, this is such a concise explanation of the relationship between values and conflict. Thank you! I will definitely use the ‘nothing is more important…’ tool as well.

  3. Henry, what an excellent post. Thanks for the insights. I especially appreciate what James Scott Bell suggested about what’s at stake. Blessings on your new novel.

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