Before the post, this is a call for questions. My long list is running down. I know I don’t add every question that comes in to my list. Some I don’t have a lot to say about, or I may have answered something similar recently. But if there’s anything about writing that plagues or confuses you or that you’ve always wondered about, this is a good time to ask. Poetry questions also welcome.
On April 5, 2014, Farina wrote, If you have a character’s, well, characteristics down in a description of him, can you give some advice for then writing that person in their own character, showing off their characteristics and personal traits? So often I feel like my characters are all blandly similar in my writing even though in my own ‘Character Bible’ I have varying personalities and flaws for them all!
In response, Bibliophile wrote, Putting them in situations where their values are challenged would be a good idea. That way, you can see how true they are to what they say they believe, and everyone is going to react differently. Use the (it doesn’t have to be in your story) ‘A house is burning down and you can only save one of these two things: a priceless painting or a murderer.’ Then have a conversation with your characters and ask them why they chose what they did. Keep in mind, there is no true right and wrong answer to this question, it’s just a great way see where your characters’ priorities are. (The question is borrowed from Shannon Hale’s Princess Academy: Palace of Stone.)
Interesting suggestion. We can move the idea behind Bibliophile’s suggestion into our story, that is, we can look at the moments in our plot when our character faces a choice.
Let’s go with the choice Bibliophile and Shannon Hale suggest. Let’s imagine a strange combination of events that might present our MC, Tania, with this exact dilemma. A civil war is raging in her country, where she works as a prison guard. Because a high-security prison was bombed, the provisional government has moved the surviving prisoners into the only structure still standing that’s big enough to house them, the fine arts museum, which holds the cultural legacy of the land. Unfortunately, one of its new inmates is an arsonist. The museum is burning. Tania guards the wing where both the murderers are penned and the masterpieces of the golden age of portraiture are displayed. She can save a murderer’s life or a cultural legacy. She may even be able to rescue more than one painting but only one person. What does she do?
We can consult our character bible to see what she cares about, how she reacts in a crisis, what her life has been up to this point. With that, we may be able to decide what this particular character will choose.
Suppose we know, for example, that she’s judgmental. Right and wrong are clearly defined in her mind, which is one reason she became a guard. Even so, this particular choice may move her into unknown territory. She believes in preserving life although she thinks murderers are the lowest of the low. She’s not much of an art lover, but she’s a patriot and she regards the museum’s holdings as a national treasure. Her values are in conflict.
The choice will be brought into sharper relief if we write the scene as it unfolds. The writing itself is likely to reveal Tania to us and will help us help her choose.
Which particular murderer is in danger of incineration? Does Tania know the details of his crime? Did he poison his own mother? Or did he kill the man who killed his sister, who got off on a technicality? What’s he like? What’s he saying to Tania while the flames lick the walls? How frightened is she? How clearly is she thinking?
Her choice will give the reader an idea of her. She can take the painting or the murderer, or she can be a ditherer and try to take both: advance five yards with the murderer, run back for the painting, and so on, possibly too slowly to get out alive with either. A tragedy. But whatever action she takes, her character will be much clearer if we write her thoughts as well, and if there’s an opportunity for dialogue, too, so much the better.
Thoughts first. We can make a list of possibilities, like this:
• I wish they’d given us fire training. Am I supposed to close the door or leave it open? Do I take the stairs or the elevator? Which is worse, first degree burns or third? I don’t want those puckery scars on my face.
• He looks a lot like Mr. Pollack. If I leave him, I’ll have to live with killing Mr. Pollack. He’s whimpering. Mr. Pollack would probably whimper, too, if he were here. This painting looks like Maria when we were in the third grade.
• Aaa! It’s so hot! We’re both going to die. I can hardly see. I’ll take whatever I touch first, the prisoner or a painting. We’ll die together.
Our characters’ thoughts help define them. We find out something about each version of Tania from what’s going through her mind. The first Tania may be a tad vain. The second Tania is more sympathetic, if no more competent. The third tends to panic, although she has a good reason in this case. Your turn. Write three more stream of consciousness moments for Tania.
On to dialogue. She can have a cell phone and a walkie-talkie. There may be other guards in the building, and she may be shouting to them. She may be talking to the murderer. In her frightened state, she can also be talking to the painting. Here are some possibilities:
• To her best friend on the cell phone: “Tell me you’ll take Susie if I don’t come out of here. I don’t want to die worrying about her. Tell her every day that I loved her, and remember to mix wet food in with the dry. She won’t eat otherwise.”
• To the murderer: “One move I don’t like and I will leave you and take the picture. Hands in the air. High. Keep them up.”
• Another possibility to the murderer: “Don’t kill the lady who’s saving your life. Don’t be like the scorpion in that story. We’re in this together.”
Your turn again. Write three more bits of dialogue for Tania. See how they define her.
I find character bibles most helpful once I start writing, and I don’t use them for every character. It’s only when my character has to do or think or say something and I can’t figure out what that should be that I create a character bible. And usually I leave it unfinished the minute I know what to put in my story. I may go back to it, though, if I get stuck again.
Using the choice between the murderer and the art is useful if our story includes that very decision. Otherwise, it’s just an exercise. When we get back to our story we may find that whatever we came up with in our hypothetical situation doesn’t fit.
One more thought: The more detail we include in our scenes, the easier it will be to make Tania come to life as a lively personality.
Naturally the prompt is to write the scene in the burning museum/prison. When you’re finished, if you’ve gotten fascinated by Tania, continue with the rest of the story, which may start with the lead-up to the burning building and go on to include her role in the civil war. If the murderer interests you, too, keep him in. Tania may not save him, but he may manage to survive anyway.
Have fun, and save what you write!