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Wet Noodle Posse | Blog

Monday, February 25, 2008

Get into Your Character’s head and Stay There!

Getting into a character’s head is a lot like labor. Pushing and groaning and deep breathing until I successfully transport myself into a character’s mind that doesn’t really exist, then make them do things and say things that not just anyone would say and do.

Okay, I’m kidding. Sort of. I have been writing for more than ten years. I try to forget how long because I’ll get depressed if I dwell on the amount of time I have spent writing without selling. I know, I know. It’s not supposed to be about the publishing contract at the end of the tunnel…but for me, that’s what motivates me to keep going. More than anything, I want to see my books on the shelves at Borders. That vision gets me to my computer every day. I won’t quit until it happens. And what does my goal of being published have to do with getting into your character’s head?


When I give my heroine (and/or hero) a goal, I make it something she wants SO badly, she’ll do ANYTHING to make it happen. She wears those same blinders they put on horses to keep them focused, because for the next three hundred pages I want my character focused on her goals. That’s how I get into her head. I make sure that whatever it is she wants, she wants it so badly she’s blind to all obstacles. She isn’t going to listen to the naysayer’s or the people at the bank telling her she can’t afford that ranch house. And if someone tells her the only way to get what she wants is to marry the ogre next door…then that’s what she’ll do.

Know your character’s goal so well that it feels like it’s your own. Give her the motivation to do WHATEVER it takes to see it through to the end. In my opinion, it should FEEL like life or death--even though it’s not. Maybe her father died trying to buy that ranch and she promised him on his death bed that she’d get it for him. If it’s a family of her own she wants, because she grew up in foster homes and never had a family to call her own, then readers will understand her marrying the ogre next door. She wants a family, darn it, and the ogre isn’t half bad when he smiles every once in a while. So what if he has a limp in his gait and an empty, hollow look to his eyes. He’ll do just fine.

I promised myself a long time ago I was never going to give up…I was going to see my books published even if it meant giving up television, being sleep deprived, and missing out on family functions. My deep motivation to sell began with my dad talking about my sisters being the “successful” ones, and a few friends telling me I would never publish because not too many people do. But motivations change over time. Hopefully, along the way, your characters will make new friends on their journey to their goals and discover things about themselves they never knew before. By the time that goal is in their grasp, they’ll realize it wasn’t about the goal in the first place. It was the journey, NOT the destination.

And, hopefully, by the end of the journey, the ogre has learned a few things, you never know when your neighbor is going to walk through your front door and propose and offer you the world, and then show you day after day that she’s never leaving you no matter what the other neighbors say behind your back. The ogre learns that love really does exist and that it can come from the strangest places and when you least expect it.

And that’s how I get inside my characters’ heads: Goal and Motivation.

Make it big, make it meaningful, make it your character’s everything…their life’s purpose, their driving force. Their reason for living is that goal…until the end of the book when they hold it, feel it, own it, and discover it wasn’t about the goal at all--not really--because of all they have learned and discovered about themselves by the end, they have changed. They aren’t who they started out as on page one.

My own journey has taught me that success isn’t about having a book on the shelves at Borders, but in having made new friends along the way while raising decent children and having a loving husband. Success is having finished seven novels, living a balanced life, and being grateful for what I have. Success is learning how to forgive misguided parents and even friends who forgot how to dream big.

There it is. Get into your characters’ heads by giving them goals and motivation that matter. Keep them focused on their goals, and then make them sweat, make them shiver, make them discover what’s really important.

So let’s talk about the goals and motivations of the characters in YOUR stories. What do they want more than anything? How badly do they want it, and what are they willing to do to reach those goal(s)?

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At 11:00 AM, Blogger Mo H said...

My heroine wants to help a ghost move on. She wants it bad enough to sneak out of the house and get in trouble with her parents. This is a YA.

At 11:10 AM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Oh, I LOVE that Maureen. Is the book finished!? What's the title? Is the ghost friendly...probably a guy?! :)

At 12:33 PM, Blogger Katey Coffing, Ph.D. said...

Nice post, Theresa. If the reader cares about the character's goals, then the character's determination becomes the reader's, too, and the reader will be invested in the story and keep reading.

At 12:44 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Exactly, Katey! The more the author can get a grip on that goal and really care, the more that shows through to the reader.

Thanks for posting and I hope you feel better soon!

At 1:25 PM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

Wow, what a great, personal look into your writing mind -- and a very concrete example on how to make our characters more real.

More than anything else, my current character, Adlia, wants to end her isolation. She's an elf who doesn't remember her parents, who disappeared. She was brought into the wider world by an outwardly cold female who didn't equip Adlia with much in the way of social skills. Adlia's an elf, part of a dying breed, and she has to keep that fact from every human she meets. When she does finally connect with someone, it's a human man, and in addition to having to hide her true nature, it turns out that even associating with him could have life-threatening consequences. She's got a big uphill climb.

At 1:29 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Great post, Theresa! I'm in awe at how skillfully you mixed character goals and motivation and an inspirational blog, all in one!

Never never never give up!

At 1:41 PM, Blogger Prisakiss said...

Wow, Esri, what a great conflict! And Mo, your YA heroine's conflict with her parents is definitely something YA readers will relate to. :-)

Theresa, your post made me think of the couple who won Best Song at the Oscars last night. The song was "Falling Slowly" from the movie Once. Music and Lyric by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova. The web address below should take you to the Oscar website, specifically the webpage that shows their acceptance speech.

They're an inspiring duo. :-)

Getting inside your character's head is difficult. You've listed a great point to help: knowing your character's goal and motivation. Great tip!

The heroine in my lasted book is tired of being taken for granted by her family. She's ready to make some changes, and finally go after something she's dreamed about for years, but never allowed herself the time to pursue. It requires her family to start taking on responsibility for themselves at times. It's a story about a woman finding herself, and ultimately, understanding that those around her will be happier, if she's happier, too.

I'm still in the very early plotting stages, so we'll see how it goes. They may all wish I just drop a bomb on them to put them out of their misery before too long. :-)

At 2:03 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Oooh, Esri, I really want to know what's going to happen to Adlia. Is this the character in the book that's coming to stores soon? Or is this your WIP? I am already sympathetic to family, and then also having the burden of being one of the last of her breed and few social skills, to boot! You did make things tough on poor Adlia. I love her already! This is great stuff. I am dying to know if the human man is going to change into an elf at the end or is she going to change into a human... I also want to know if she'll ever get to know her parents or find out what happened to them.

At 2:07 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Thanks, Diane, for the nice comment. :)

And Pris, your story sounds fab, too. I think that is one of the toughest things to do as a human a woman especially...learn to take care of yourself FIRST so that you can be there for others when needed. It sounds like your heroine's going to have to use some 'tough love' to pursue her dreams. This is a book that could help a lot of women out there...keep going. I want to read this one for sure!

I'll have to go read that speech you talked about, too. I'm going there right now to check it out. Thanks for the URL!

At 2:12 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

You're right, Pris. That was a great acceptance speech. Gave me chills.

I especially liked this part:

"....fair play to those who dare to dream and don't give up. And this song was written from a perspective of hope, and hope at the end of the day connects us all, no matter how different we are."

At 2:18 PM, Blogger Prisakiss said...

Theresa, you mentioned one of my favorite parts of the acceptance speech. I thought both of their speeches captured the spirit of going for your dreams.

Esri, I'm hoping I can pull off this latest book. I'm struggling with getting started with it, and I think part of it is that, in a small way, it hits close to home. It's hard balancing family, work and personal goals.

I'm gonna give it all a shot, though. :-)

At 2:29 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Pris, I know you can do it. I'm also glad you're going to go for it, Pris. Because it is closer to home, readers will probably be able to feel the emotion you put into this book. Just keep those blinders on your heroine...don't let her give up when it gets really tough and throwing in the towel starts to look easier than fighting the pull to do everything for everyone else. And maybe when you're done, you'll have learned something from your heroine! :)

I think it's a great thing to be there for your family as long as you don't give up too much of yourself until there is nothing left.

At 3:13 PM, Blogger Mo H said...

Yes, the first book--A Ghoul Just Wants to Have Fun is finished. That ghost was a pain-in-the-neck kid the heroine had to help move on. It's a series. My heroine, who already has a reputation for being weird, becomes a ghost handler, which has the potential to kill her hopes of ever being seen as semi-normal. The second book is what I'm working on now, and yes the ghost in Kiss the Ghoul is a boy--a cute boy at that! The problem is that he doesn't realize he's dead.

At 3:16 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Diane, if you feel like sharing some of your character's goals, feel free. :) For instance, your hero's goal in Reputable Rake wanted a new life as a respectable man, right? But to get his goal he had to give up the very thing he wanted...respectability! Very clever.

Any favorite goals and motivations you have used for your books?

At 3:21 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Maureen, what a fun series! And a great idea. She wants to be normal but here she has all these crazy ghosts coming around messing up her plans. First an annoying kid and now a cute boy. That's genius!

At 3:36 PM, Blogger Mo H said...

I don't know about genius, but thanks!

One of my favorite heroine's Claire in Outlander has the goal of returning to the husband she loves. She time travels back to Jacobean? Scotland. But one of the things she has to do while trying to get back to the future is marry someone else--hero Jaimie, while she's in the past.

At 3:48 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Oh, crap! Does Claire's first husband know that she has a new husband? Does she go back and forth? I've heard a lot about this book, but I've never read it and I don't mind spoilers. They usually make me want to read it more.

At 4:26 PM, Blogger Terry Odell said...

I love this topic. Characters, and therefore their goals and motivations are what make the writing happen for me.

I also love the way goals can change, or that a character might not even be aware of his motivations and goals.

In one of my books, the hero starts out with a short term goal - be the cop who brings in a crook who's been eluding cops all over the state. But as things unfold, he's forced to deal with one of his other fundamental personal rules--there's black and there's white, and he doesn't do gray. So I keep pushing him to make the choices that will send him away from his personal set of rules.

The heroine wants to be totally independent. Of course, she's going to have to deal with the fact that there are things she can't do herself, but not being willing to accept help throws her into the fire.

In another one of my books, the hero is totally unaware that he's really trying to make amends with his deceased father, and he doesn't realize how much the two of them loved each other.

At 5:10 PM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

Theresa: Adlia's in the WIP. I worked on more plotting stuff today, and I have to tell you that answering your question/challenge at the very beginning of the day really helped me move forward. So thanks!

It's funny you called her "poor Adlia." That's how I always think of her. ;D I think I've crapped on her more than on any other character I've written. That's a good thing.

Pris: I'm sure you can pull it off. It does seem that as we develop as writers, we dig deeper and deeper into our personal issues. It takes a fair amount of courage, but I agree with Theresa that it makes the final product really resonate with the reader.

Maureen, I don't know if I've heard the full premise for your YA series. That really sounds fun. Looking forward to lapping it right up.

Terry: Love the cop's conflict. On the one hand, it sounds like his black-and-white perspective is what motivates him to solve a crime others have given up on, but he may have to give up that perspective to get the job done. Nice paradox. And the son/father dynamic you describe in the other book sure tugs at the heart. Nice.

At 5:14 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Wow, Terry. Interesting. I hadn't thought about having a character who isn't even aware of his or her goals.

So the one with the deceased does that unfold? what are some of the things that happen that make him forgive his father?

And I love your idea of having a heroine who doesn't want any help and yet keeps needing it, but doesn't take it, which makes things worse. And then by the end of the book, of course, she doesn't mind leaning on someone, like say the hero, every once in a while? :)

At 5:21 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Glad I actually helped you out, Esri. Thanks for giving me some credit for helping you move forward in your story. I'll take it!

That's exactly what keeping focused on goal and motivation does for me...keeps my characters trudging ahead page after page.

At 7:43 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

In my next book, Scandalizing the Ton, my heroine wants a baby more than anything else in the world, but when she becomes pregnant she has to pretend the baby is her late husband's or suffer even more scandal than she has suffered before.

The hero wants more than anything to do something useful, but everyone believes he is a rake and no one takes him seriously, even when he wants to do the right thing by the woman who he suspects is carrying his child.

At 8:16 PM, Blogger Terry Odell said...

Sometimes I think the characters' goals are revealed to both of us at about the same time. But at several workshops, the 'secret wish' or 'deep dark secret' came up -- and this can be something the character isn't consciously aware of.

For me, the click moment for my character came from a Dan Fogelberg line..."Papa, I don't think I said I love you near enough."

The goals and motivations have to go beyond the obvious external ones. They have to come from deep inside the character ... and yes, he/she may not really be aware they're there.

(On that note, nothing bugs me more than having the author drive that message home three times a chapter. Readers will get it!)

At 8:21 PM, Blogger Terry Odell said...

So the one with the deceased does that unfold? what are some of the things that happen that make him forgive his father?

Theresa: That's the hero in What's in a Name? and he has spent most of his life trying to get away from everything his father was, having hated the life. He's moved up to what he thinks his goals were--corporate hotshot--but his boss sends him on a mission as a favor where he has to return to his handyman roots. In doing what he's vowed never to do again (and with the help of an insightful heroine, of course!) he sees the truth about his father, and how he'd loved him, but now it's too late to make amends.

At 8:53 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Oooh, I got chills, Terry. What's in a Name sounds like a tear jerker.

Diane, you sure know how to make your heroes pay for their roguish pasts, don't you! When does Scandalizing the Ton come out? I should know this...October, right?

Must read all of these books! And that is another goal of mine, to read lots of books this year.

Thanks for sharing and commenting everyone.

At 9:43 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Diane, you sure know how to make your heroes pay for their roguish pasts, don't you! When does Scandalizing the Ton come out? I should know this...October, right?

Right, Theresa. October.

Terry, Michael Hauge would say that what the hero really needs, who he really is, is his "Essence;" his identity is who he thinks he is and his initial goal may have to do with identity, not essence.

At 9:58 PM, Blogger doglady said...

This is a fantastic and really insightful post, Theresa. I am almost finished with the first draft of my WIP - Lost in Love and I have come to realize that Marcus's goal and Addy's goal are more than I thought they were. Have to address that in the revisions.

I realize now that Marcus wants to do whatever he can, to live his very life in atonement for what he thinks he did to cause his father's death and later his brother's death. His guilt is so terrible he wants to deny himself happiness - because his brother's happiness was cut short by death. He wants to become the very best duke, landlord, master and provider to the estate because his brother and father were. He wants to provide the family with an heir because his brother could not. None of these things were his goal until his brother's sudden heart attack after they argued. His best friend accuses him of sacrificing himself as a martyr to his brother's memory - to guilt.

Addy, on the other hand, wants to live an exciting life and show the world she can make a difference. She wants the world to take her seriously. She refuses to be seen as the plain sister with the large dowry to make up for the beauty she lacks, beauty her sister has in abundance. She's never been expected to DO anything and so she begins a secret crusade with her best friend to rescue horses that are abused by their owners - she buys them if she can and if not she steals them and whisks them away to her best friend's brother's estate to be nursed back to health and allowed to live out their days in peace.

Okay, so does that sound like enough internal conflict and are those goals fairly clear? I am still learning all of this!

At 10:19 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Doglady, I think these are VERY strong goals. And I like how these are goals that have been forced upon him in a way...since they weren't his goals until his brother died. Marcus's motivation seems powerful and if he is trying to be the best duke and lord, etc., and he's paired up with a daring woman who wants excitement and who is stealing (although for a good cause), then he's in BIG trouble! I love it! IMO, these are very clear goals and motivations for both of your characters. I love that she's saving horses, too. Yahoo!

Finish that book and submit!

At 5:44 AM, Blogger Terry Odell said...

Diane -
I guess I'm a true 'pantser' then -- I never heard of the 'essesnce' until recently, but apparently I've been using it all along without knowing it has a label. Maybe that's why the book is titled "What's in a Name?"

(I can never remember which is a simile and which is a metaphor, either, but I can still use 'em). :-)

At 6:03 AM, Blogger MJFredrick said...

OK, Diane, I can't WAIT to read that one!!

At 7:48 AM, Blogger Gillian Layne said...

Very strong, helpful advice: great post!


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