Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Know your characters

Last time we talked about the pivotal “What if” moment that determines what your novel is about. You’ve considered possible scenarios, reasons your killer only terrorizes left-handed, red-headed concert pianists. You know what your heroine did to attract the attention of your killer. You’ve come up with a few red herrings designed to throw off the reader. You even have an idea for a subplot involving the heroine and her estranged mother.
But before you begin writing this novel that’s sure to be the next bestseller, you need to decide who the story happens to. I ask myself 5 questions about the major players in my books before I begin writing.

1. Who is the hero?
2. What does he want concretely?
3.What does he want abstractly?
4.What stands in his way?
5. What does he learn through the course of the novel?

In answer to the first question, I write an extensive biographical sketch: education, what he drives, where he was born, physical description. Go as far as you like. Don’t feel bad if you don’t know everything at first. You’ll learn as you go, but get as deep as you can. Your novel will benefit from all the thought you put into this stage.

What does you character want concretely? Let’s imagine he wants to learn to dance for his daughter’s wedding. Some of your characters’ needs won’t seem as important as others on the surface. Don’t stress over it at this point.

What does he want abstractly? Perhaps he has always had a poor relationship with his daughter. He wants to prove that he’s sorry for not being there when she was growing up.

What does he learn through the course of the novel? The answer to this question will tie in with the theme of your novel. Maybe he realizes he can’t buy love. Or his daughter loves him unconditionally and never held his parenting mistakes against him. Or that he should’ve been honest when she was little and not hid behind his career.
Answer these questions as best you can. It may prevent you from hitting your head against a wall later.

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