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Wet Noodle Posse | Blog

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Working Backwards to Develop Character

If you ask most romance authors how they develop stories, they will tell you they start with characters and the plot unfolds from there. I used to think I did that too (and sometimes I actually do) but I began to realize I usually have a question in my mind that starts a story unfolding, and that question has more to do with plot. It'll be something like, "What would happen if...?"

It doesn't take very long to get from the question to the beginnings of a plot, and almost always I'll see the characters as they move through the story. It all happens so quickly that I could be forgiven for thinking my characters came to me first. But they don't. Usually.

If you've read Robert McKee's STORY, you probably recognize his theory in this, that "Story is character; character is story". He believes that if you know your characters thoroughly, you also know there is only one way they can act, and that is their story. If they act differently from what you expected then either you didn't know them as well as you thought, or you have not chosen the correct path for them. In other words, a character who is fully formed will choose to follow his true path and that one only.

I wasn't so sure of this until I wrote APHRODITE'S BREW, which is coming out in a few days. Toward the end, Val made a change of direction that was completely unexpected to me. He does something completely wonderful, something he could not have done in the beginning of the story. But as he and Sylvia influence each other and change through the story, Val becomes someone different from who he was in the beginning. What he does changes many lives forever. And not until I had written it did I understand this was the ONLY thing Val would have done at this point.

Sometimes beginning with a plot premise is the only way to go. If this happens to you-- that is, you know what your character will do before you know who he is, what's really happening is that you do know who he is, but on a more sub-conscious level. You must experience your character through his actions in the same way the reader will, and through his choices he will show you the truth of who he is.

I have a book in mind. It's called Hero. It started out as a book cover design, and the truth is I was just fooling around, experimenting with some Photoshop techniques I'd never really tried before. One thing led to another, and a photo of a man who was described by the photographer as "Handsome Arab Man Swimming at River" suddenly bloomed before me as something almost shocking. I knew immediately the title that should go with it, and once it was there, the story question came to me, and then the man in the story.

The question was, "What if a man who has always been defined by others and himself as a hero finds his hero status taken from him?" I could see a cavalry officer in the Peninsular War, a reckless, always heroic warrior, who makes a bad mistake. Something that throws him away from everything he has always had to identify himself. Who does he become? What does he do now, if he can no longer be who he believes himself to be? Will he fight to return to the way things had always been? Or will he find a new way to redeem himself and thus find a new life?

The choice he makes will be determined by who he is deep inside. His true character has nothing to do with the curls in his hair or muscles in his body. It has nothing to do with the pitch of his voice. But it does connect with his choice of clothing, that being an expression of himself. It is expressed in many ways but most strongly in his choices for living. The steps he makes, his choices, make the plot and take him to the eventual outcome, and in the end, we will know who he was from the beginning that led him in his inevitable path.

If you know the basics of your plot because that is what came to you, follow it in your mind, and observe the character, always asking yourself, who is this person who would make these choices?
If he turns right and heads to London to fight for his honor when you thought he would turn down the country lane and go bitterly into hiding, you must know why the man would do this. What drove him in that direction? If he must acknowledge he was the one who committed the drastic error that brought his downfall, and therefore accept his consequences, then what was it within him that gave him that strength to grow in that direction? Every step he makes must be true to who he is. But conversely, who he is must determine what steps he takes.

I watched Pride & Prejudice a few nights ago and was struck by just how well Jane Austen understood this strange phenomenon. Darcy could not have done anything other than what he did, because he had an overload of pride to contend with in the beginning. But he also had a very strong sense of right and wrong, and in the end his moral sense had to conquer the pride that was misleading him. Every step of the way, Darcy had to fight the battle between his pride and his moral code. The entire plot shows him fighting his battle. And because he is who he is, he wins his battle. Darcy determined the plot, and so did Lizzie. And their interaction changed each of them and each other.

Give it a try. Start with a question and follow it in your mind. Let the people who belong step in and be who they are. When they do something, at every stage ask yourself who is the person who would make this choice? If you follow them, you will know them and they will not lead you astray.



At 6:33 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

I like this post a lot, Delle. Very thought provoking. Especially loved what you said at the end: "If you follow them, you will know them and they will not lead you astray."

In the beginning of each book I write, before I really know my characters, I do find myself trying to make my characters do things they would not do and it never works.

I love how Val took an unexpected turn in your story and that ended up being the ONLY thing he could do. I also love your HERO cover and how that one picture gave you a new story to tell. Wonderful.

At 7:28 PM, Blogger Delle Jacobs said...

Thanks, Theresa! Amazing where we get our inspiration, isn't it?


At 8:18 PM, Blogger doglady said...

This was a very thought provoking post and gave me some real insight into my characters. Thank you. I started my story with an incident actually and everything else came from that. What has pleased and astounded me is my characters knew who they were all along and while they have been a little slow in revealing themselves, they're finally there and I have to do some deep revisions to reflect all they have shown me.

At 8:33 PM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

I love the way a picture or a fragment of conversation can start a book idea. It's one of the real pleasures of this job; tuning into the possibilities of relationships, regardless of time period or even species. It's just so much fun.

At 3:34 AM, Blogger Gillian Layne said...

Delle, your book cover is gorgeous!

I read your post and then went back very late last night and read through a bunch of my work. Thanks to your very basic and brilliant question, it made spotting the parts where they might have veered off course so much easier. Great post!

At 9:37 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a very interesting concept. Thank you for sharing.

At 11:43 AM, Blogger Terry Odell said...

Although characters are the core of my writing, there have been times when a critique buddy seems to know them better than I do. She'd say, "That's not what Colleen would do/say" and sure enough, I'd stuck too much "me" into the scene.

At 5:11 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Great post, Delle.
You do a terrific job of explaining why character is story and story is character!


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