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?

Making Dialogue Work

Dialogue is one of the hardest working tools we have because we ask it to do so much. It has to convey information, develop and move the plot, increase tension and conflict all while sounding natural.

Perhaps most importantly, dialogue must engage the reader through revealing our characters. It brings them to life and shows their personalities, their quirks, their goals, and their fears.

The most effective and real dialogue comes when we know our characters as intimately as possible. Whether our story is plot-driven or character-driven, we have to invest the time in writing biographies, character analyses, Meyers-Briggs assessment, journals, interviewing them, and experimenting with how they speak, act, think, and feel. And they’ll still surprise us.

In my first novel, Journey to Riverbend, I had a problem with the story arc of my female protagonist, Rachel. She was a former prostitute who received Jesus. She was also striving to open a dress-making business in a town where many were hostile to her because of her past. It wasn’t until I interviewed her that I learned Rachel was a feisty, determined young woman with numerous questions about her new-found faith, anxieties about her future, and wondering if love could ever be part of her life.

And I discovered her voice changed depending on her situation. She had a business voice she used with customers and an almost child-like awe when she talked about her faith. At times her prostitute “don’t mess with me” voice came into play. When the mayor attempted to get too familiar, Rachel stopped him cold with the whispered line, “I’m making dresses for your wife. I can make her look like a laughing stock while convincing her she looks like Queen Victoria.”

With these new insights, Rachel’s dialogue became stronger, more connected to her emotions at the moment, more realistic. It revealed more of her personality, her dreams, her fears.

Rachel came to life through her dialogue.

Make the time to know your characters. They’ll reward you with stronger personalities and become people that readers will keep turning pages for.

How has dialogue allowed you to develop your characters even further? What have you learned about your characters through dialogue that surprised you?

Fit For The Master’s Use

One of my test readers recently sent me an email that both blessed me and reminded me of what we’re all about as writers. At the end of her email, she included a prayer: “God, I pray you give Henry wisdom, knowledge, creativity, patience and energy to finish Your book. Amen and Amen.”

It’s not my book. It’s His. I’m His instrument, His tool to get the message out that He wants shared.

At one level, I knew this. I’d like to think everything I do is for Him. But there are times when the ego gets in the way, and I lose sight of Him. It becomes my book, my project.

But that’s not true. He inspires us to write the words. In obedience to Him, we do and the writing flows. It’s not perfect the first time because I’m not perfect. But the refining, pruning process applies to our writing as much as it does to our spirits. My role is to have my heart in the place where my words can be grafted onto His vine and not lopped off as unfit for the Master’s use.

I’m His vessel, the clay in His hands. But it only works if I’m humble and obedient enough to put me aside and let Him shape and mold. And sometimes it hurts because I love my words, but He has better ones. And sometimes it hurts because the words He wants me to write in fiction reveal an area in me that needs work, work that must be done if I am to go forward with Him.

Has Father asked you to participate with Him in your writing in a way that is uncomfortable? How have His words and His plan for your writing grown and encouraged you? Your readers?

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