Life After NaNoWriMo, Day 3: Discover Your Character’s Deepest Wound, Fear, and Desire

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Dear writers and storytellers,

Here, as promised, is the third of five excerpts from my popular book Write Characters Your Readers Won’t Forget. I am offering one excerpt free each day this week on my blog. Each includes practical tips and exercises for digging more deeply into the inner lives of your characters — helping you to make your characters and their stories unforgettable. I offer the third of the five excerpts below.

And now, on to your free tip for the day:

DISCOVER YOUR CHARACTER’S DEEPEST WOUND, FEAR, AND DESIRE

by Stant Litore

We are driven by our desires, our fears, and the core wounds of our lives. These supply the goals we want to achieve, the barriers we strive to overcome, and the inner obstacles that slow us from leaping over those barriers.

So it is critical to ask these questions about your characters:

  1. When was your character most loved?
  2. When was your character hurt?
  3. What choices did your character make at that time?
  4. How did your character feel about those choices?
  5. How has your character repeated those choices, perhaps in smaller ways, ever since? How is your character driven by those past choices?
  6. What triggers memories of that past? What triggers might others trip over unknowingly?

Example: Rachel’s Bracelets

There is a clever scene in Sharon Shinn’s novel Archangel that illustrates how triggers of past memory can be used in a way that builds emotional tension, throws wrinkles into the plot, and sets up a key moment on the character arc. In the story, Rachel and Gabriel are preparing for an arranged marriage. Gabriel has great wealth and power but essentially a good heart; Rachel, until recently, was a slave. The reader knows this, but may not fully appreciate the emotional impact that history has had on Rachel until this scene.

Gabriel throws a banquet in Rachel’s honor and invites every dignitary he can think of. He wants very badly to show her that he means to treasure her. During the banquet, he presents her with an expensive gift: two heavy, solid-gold, jeweled bracelets. Rachel looks down at them and freezes. Her entire body goes cold and rigid. She starts to shake. Very quietly, she says, “I will never wear these,” and then flees the room.

Gabriel and the other guests are left shocked by her departure.

Of course what has happened is that the bracelets have reminded Rachel of manacles. We learn this when Gabriel pursues her to her quarters and tries to comfort her; Rachel lowers her sleeves (until this point in the story, she has kept her wrists carefully covered) to reveal the bruises her slavery has left around her wrists. The revelation is powerful and poignant and even shocking, and it opens a key moment on the character arc: How will Gabriel react? And how will Rachel then respond? It is an opportunity to move their relationship forward.

For Rachel, the gift of golden bracelets was the trigger for her deepest wound and her most terrible fears. What might trigger your characters’ most significant past experiences and feelings (whether terrifying or joyous)? What is a touch, a smell, a sound, that is meaningful and historical to your character?

The trigger can be something quite small and subtle. For example, a mentor of mine many years ago told me how her eyes would mist over every time she heard the sound of someone jingling car keys in their hand. Her father had died when she was young, and she missed him so much. When she was small and her father would come home from work, he would jingle his car keys as he climbed the stairs. Whenever she hears that sound, her loss and her love for her father rise to the top of her heart.

What triggers your characters’ feelings from the past? 

EXERCISE 18

Write three brief scenes, each making use of one of the following as a “trigger” for feelings welling up from your character’s past:

  1. A red cord tied around a bunch of bananas at the grocery store.
  2. Children humming.
  3. The scent of bacon.

In all three cases, write a scene of conflict between characters. Use the trigger to pivot the scene from one mood to another or to abruptly change the course of the conflict. Write all three to be poignant, not amusing.

EXERCISE 19

Repeat Exercise 18. This time, write for humor.

Read more in Write Characters Your Readers Won’t Forget — and watch this blog for tomorrow’s tip!

Stant Litore

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