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Storybuilding 2: Characters

I’ve talked a lot about characters; just take a look at the Character Clinic and all the great articles and resources.  There are a million ways to build a character.  For me, each character comes to life in a slightly different way.  Sometimes I do loads of prework and still don’t have a good handle on the character.  Other times, I set out to write up detailed history and the voice comes through so loud and strong that I discover I’m actually writing the book (e.g. Chanda in Survive My Fire.  That’s why her sections of the book are in first person–I was actually trying to write her “character letter” below).

With Victor’s story, I cheated a bit.  As soon as I finished the first draft of Conn’s book (then called Letters), I immediately started working on his brother’s book.  I have about 10K of loose sections written out.  I didn’t do character planning, plotting, etc. — I was just writing out the ideas as I got them.  That work gave me the basic external plot.

But who was Victor?  Oh, I knew he was the CEO of VConn, an up and coming Dallas cable company.  I also knew he was a Master.  No mere dominant title will work for Victor.  But none of this gave me his heart.

There are a few crucial tools I come back to over and over as I develop a story.  If I do these things, I can usually plot the story or simply begin writing.

1. Greatest Strength/Greatest Weakness. Every character should have a strength, that can also become a weakness and be used against him.  Victor’s strength is that he never loses.  Never.  He’s so driven, so competitive, that he’ll pay any cost to win.  Sometimes he gets so caught up in the victory that he doesn’t realize what he’s lost.

Now I take that strength and come up with one word that fully describes it.  Then I come up with its opposite that reflects his weakness.  Usually one is an adjective and one is a noun, but they can be in any order.  The trick is to come up with an oxymoron for the character that encapsulates this strength and weakness.

Victor is the victorious loser.  Shiloh is the unburied treasure.  (Note: I don’t think Shiloh’s is as strong as Victor’s. I’m playing off the idea of “buried treasure” and its opposite, unburied or “found” treasure.)   They don’t mean anything to anybody but me, but they’re powerful reminders of who these characters are.  Note, too, the importance of the characters’ names.  Victor’s name IS his strength, and so is Shiloh’s, because she’s definitely a gift.  She means to gift herself to Victor, if she can convince him to unbury the need he’s hidden away in his heart.

2. The Character Letter.  So I know that Victor has this extreme drive to win.  Knowing, though, doesn’t give me the details I need.  I wanted a specific instance in his past that showed me how he’d won — but lost.  That event still haunts him.  I also needed to know how he realized he was a sadist.  How did he feel about that?

The best way for me to figure these defining moments out is, of course, to write about it.  I could always choose to write it out like backstory (and I’ve done that — like Letters, the backstory for Dear Sir, I’m Yours that’s a Free Read), but I can kill two birds with one stone by writing it in first person.  This lets me get deep into Victor’s head AND figure out his voice.  What words will he use that no other character would?  How did he FEEL?  So I sit down with him and write in his voice, his words, about these defining moments.

And yes, as my beloved sister requested, I’ll post some of that letter this week–after I edit it a bit.

Background:  that’s why there are so many letters in Dear Sir, I’m Yours.  I started them as a character-building tool for Rae, and I found them so powerful and moving that I continued to write them.  Then they became so integral to the story that I ended up writing many more.

3. The Emotional Toolbox. I love this site.  It highlights everything I love about the hero’s journey.  A moving story is all about removing the mask and revealing the character’s deepest fears.  When I’m stuck at any point in writing the story, I can always go back over the six questions and my notes.  The answer is there.

Usually I can get plot ideas just by answering the six questions.  I also figure out supporting characters I need to add in order to highlight the theme and the journey.  In particular, the most important thing I get out of the Emotional Toolbox is the fear.

Deep down in the darkest corner of Victor’s heart, he’s very, very afraid, and that’s where the magic is.

2 thoughts on “Storybuilding 2: Characters

  1. I just discovered the Emotional Toolbox site during LB & LI and it is an amazing tool! I love your oxymoron trick…I can see where that would help. So glad you’re sharing this process. Thanks.

  2. And that magic is so amazing. I love stumbling across something that I know is right and then digging until I find out why. Because there’s always some amazing reason that makes everything makes sense…but first, it was just intuition. And intuition is MAGIC.

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