Monday, October 31, 2011

The Next Part

Sometimes when you’re working on a piece, you end one scene and move on to The Next Part. And while you’re working on The Next Part or, worse, have finished with The Next Part, you realize that it isn’t right. It’s not working, it feels wrong. It’s just not what happens next.

Why does this occur? In my experience, it’s usually because you’re trying to force the characters to do something they just wouldn’t do.

But wait! This is your story. These characters are yours. You are their god, their puppet master. You command them; they act!


Sorry to disappoint all you wannabe megalomaniacs out there, but that’s not how it works. You don’t get to tell them what to do and how to feel. You create a situation and drop them into it. Then they act according to their natures.

At least, well-developed characters will. Can it be frustrating when they throw a monkey wrench into your outline? Sure. But it’s also incredibly fulfilling, like watching your children grow up and become their own people, separate from you.

But how do you develop a character to this point? Well, you simply have to know everything there is to know about them (this isn’t necessary for minor characters, but for major ones it’s a must). Their childhood, favorite song, pet peeves, their relationship with their maternal grandparents…everything. Every inch of their body, every curve, every hair every scar and how they got it. And every inch of their psyche as well; every memory bad or good, every fear and love. Easy, right? It can be, if you sit down and get to know them. If you ask the right questions.

Pamela Dowd’s Character Development Chart is a good way to start this process. You can find it on her website ( Sure, it looks long and tedious. But I guarantee that once you start filling it out, you won’t be able to stop. Opening a character- a person- is like unpeeling an onion; there’s always another layer. It’s fascinating to know someone so completely. Your characters are the people you know the best, better than your spouse, better than your children. Your characters can’t hide anything from you.

But that doesn’t mean they’re going to let you manipulate them.

What should you do when one of your beautifully conceived, full realized characters digs in their heels and refuses to obey?

Simple: ask what they plan on doing.

This works best when you are in a quiet place, when all your daytime work/family stuff/worries are taken care of. Go to the library. Go into your backyard. When I had trouble with the main character of my first novel (unfortunately I didn’t discover his stubbornness until after I’d written the The Next Part), I decided to have a little talk with him. I put on my running shoes and went out into Nature (well, into the subdivision where we lived, but it had trees). No music, no chatty running buddy. Just me and my character. I sat him down, turned the ultra-bright cop show interrogation light into his face, and asked him what he was going to do next.

Forty-five minutes later I returned to the house, sweaty and gross, and knowing exactly what to write next.

And that’s all it takes. A little time, a single question, and knowing your character. Not so hard, when you think about it!

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