Monday, November 19, 2007

Decisions, Decisions

Reminder: Join us for our November meeting, tonight at 6:00 p.m. (social hour with brown bag dinner) with the meeting starting at 7:00 p.m. Our speaker is our very own Jim who will be speaking about swords and sword fighting. No stranger to swashbuckling romance, Jim writes with his wife Barbara Ray. Please join us!

I promise to return to reviewing RWA news soon, but today I actually had fodder for a blog-like post, so I decided to go with that.

I was thinking the other day about all the decisions that have gotten me to this point in my life--some big (which college, which boy, which job ), others small (which club, which book, which dinner). They all add up to the person I am now. I tend to revisit certain decisions in my head and wonder what would be different if I had chosen Y instead of X. It's not that I'm unhappy with my life (far from it). I'm just really curious about who I'd be if I'd chosen the other path. More importantly, who would I have needed to be to choose that path? I often wish for a time machine or a movie that would show me the other path but still let me return to my current life.

Then, last night I slapped myself upside the head! Duh! I'm a WRITER. The other path is ALWAYS open to me in my fiction, and I have a front row seat to the movies in my head. Realizing this gave me new insight on character development. A character is the sum of his/her choices. Each choice both reflects and reveals character.

Why did your character order eggs and pancakes instead of oatmeal?
Why did your character drive from Chicago to St. Louis instead of taking the train or flying?
Would your character really show up at that party?
Who would your character be if they worked at a different job, had said yes to that boy in college, went to graduate school?
What type of person would your character have to be to have met her best friend in kindergarten versus last year at a playgroup or five years ago in college?

Let's say you think it would be interesting if your heroine was a chef. You research cooking techinques, maybe interview a chef, and watch several hours of Food Network to ensure that she comes across authentic. This is all good, but if you really want to get inside her head consider her choices:

Who was she before she was a chef? What choices did she make along the way?
What sort of person chooses to go to culinary school versus college?
Why did she choose (or not) to stay at a small bistro versus moving up to an exclusive eatery?
What things has she had to give up to continue being a chef: night-time socializing? holidays? weekends? dieting? friends?

Each choice reveals something about the background of your character, who she is, how she thinks, what her values are. When you get an inconsistent answer, a red flag should go up: she wouldn't choose that. Back up, and reconsider the answer. Are you inserting your own preferences? Are you being true to her previous choices? Is there a reason for her acting outside of her pattern?

Let's say you decide to give your heroine a house in the suburbs while she works at a downtown eatery. Would a chef working 80+ hours a week really choose to commute that far, plus take on the upkeep of a house? If your chef would, why? Is she happy with her choice? Who would she be if you stuck her in a downtown loft instead?

Consider the smaller choices your characters make as well. Are you in a rut? Do all your heroines crave chocolate, hate their mothers, and love Audrey Hepburn. Would this character really make those choices?

Since as writers, the path not taken is always an option, don't fence your characters (or yourself!) in with the first choice that comes to mind. Consider what might happen if your character chose a different option. What if our fictional chef chose to go to college before leaving to become a chef? Who would she be then? What if instead of getting on a plane to go to St. Louis, you stick her on a train instead?

Are you taking advantage of places to reveal character through the motivation for choices. In John Grisham's The Summons, the main character, Ray, ends up eating in a lot of diners. Instead of just having his character order the pancakes, he reflects that he'd rather order cereal and grapefruit, but doesn't feel free to do so. He also notes in conversation why his father wouldn't eat breakfast at an establishment like that. These little details about the choices of Ray and his father reveal a lot about who they are.

As you write today, I challenge you to examine all of the choices your character has to make to bring them to that place in the story. Dig deeper into your back story and learn more about each character. Look for places to reveal motivation for choices.

Any thoughts? Examples?


Paty Jager said...

Awesome, thought provoking blog today, Wavy! It's so good to have you back!

To some degree I do a lot of this what if in my head before I start a book and while I'm writing, but I'm sure everyone can agree- we can all "dig deeper" when writing and showing the "true" character to the reader.

See you and Tavy tonight!

Alice Sharpe said...

This is an excellent blog, Wavy and it's wonderful to "hear" your voice again. I am so sorry I will miss seeing you and Octavia tonight (could someone there take a picture and post it on the blog--we all know Eli and Lisa know how to do that!) and hope she makes an appearance at Eli's for the Xmas party, too.

As for backstory...I do a lot of thinking about this subject as I plot. Esp. in a mystery, I think, backstory and how someone got to where they are now, is totally relevant and very important to know. However, as I write, I'm always amazed when my characters reveal even deeper details about themselves and how often these details explain how they got to where they are. I enjoy knowing a lot before I write but I also enjoy the discovery process as hidden connections begin to come into sharper focus. And unlike real life, in fiction the past can (and often is) rewritten.

In a way, some of this dovetails into what Danita wrote last week about humor and how humor is surprise. The element of discovery is what readers (at least me) read for.

I used to play the same game with my life and choices that you do. I'd wonder what would have happened if. I never went back before my children's births because I couldn't stand the thought of not having those exact children in my life and I've always been very aware that even small decisions change everything. All decisions made after they joined us were fair game.

Good to have you back.

Karen Duvall said...

Great post, Wavy! 8^) I never know how complicated my characters are going to be until I really get into their story. And I agree with Alice, that discovering new history about our story people is one of the greatest joys of writing fiction. Making those connections between the characters is way cool. 8^) Sometimes it's like the story exists before you write it, and with each word you put on the page you're pulling back a curtain, little by little, to reveal the book behind it. Very exciting stuff.

Elisabeth Naughton said...

Did you see the movie, The Butterfly Effect with Ashton Kutcher? Same principal. Each time he changed one small thing in his life, his life went in a completely different direction. He learned (quickly) the life he'd led originally was a lot better than the other paths he could have taken.

I love this blog, Wavy. Very insightful. I too, like Alice, enjoy learning things about my characters as I go along. Knowing it all up front isn't fun for me, just as reading it all in an info dump at the beginning of a book is no fun for a reader.

My current heroine is a bit of a mystery so far, but I'm having fun learning about her. Your post is helping me think through questions I hadn't thought of.

Genene said...

Very thought-provoking post, Wavy! this gives me a great way to dig out the backstory on characters. I usually dig out the "why" of their actions, but haven't taken this tack of what if they had made different choices. Very intriguing!

Danita Cahill said...

Great blog, Wavy. And fun to see you getting back into the swing again. Sorry to be replying so late. Busy week with the holdiay and all.

This was a timely post for me because I've been thinking about my heroine and how no friends, only family and deceased family members are mentioned. I think it's okay that she doesn't pal around with a best friend, but I do need to address the reason why. So, thanks for that.

And Tavy is an absolute treasure! So glad to finally make her acquaintance.