Building a Character Trait

When you are writing from inside a character, you need to remain true to your original conception. The novel will be written over a period of months, and during that time it is easy to lose track of his bedrock issues. You are trying to project, after all, a personality that is different from your own. The usual advice—concentrate!—is a good idea, but you can use notes to yourself as well.

Let’s start off with a motivation: the heroine has a nagging feeling that she wants more out of life. That’s why she goes so far outside her normal routines in the novel. That nagging feeling, what are the causes? You should identify those first. She might feel that she has settled for less, because her father criticized her so much as a child, she never had much sense of self-worth. You can substitute whatever reasons you want: the idea is to break an amorphous notion into workable pieces.

Now you can break the pieces down further. What did the father castigate her about? Come up with a list of 3-5 points. That’s about all a person remembers anyway. She might be a smartaleck, for instance, and he’s always so serious. Now to the main point of the post: how do you keep track of that issue over the course of a novel? Write out five instances of their clash over what he deems her inappropriate sense of humor. As with everything you write, pick the most dismaying or dangerous incidents.

You then have to find five places in the novel to insert them. That means five cues in the present-day story that could cause her to remember these times. You need to find father figures or activities that her father would be critical about. If he felt she always took the easy road, for instance, she could feel discontent that she’s done some routine so many times, it feels easy. Her job might actually be really taxing, but that voice of Dad pops up, every time. She can fight it, tell the voice to shut the hell up, but it’s going to come back as long as she does it.

You then link up instances of this recurring feeling of discontent. She can grow increasingly dissatisfied with this line of work. With each time she is more determined she is going to banish that voice—slay it forever. That means she has to break through to that new person she’s destined to be.

Exercise: When you create linked passages that are dozens of pages apart, you can use a mnemonic device. You connect each time with the first mention by using the same distinctive words. Some cruel thing her father said, for example, keeps ringing in her mind. You then key off that with responses that grow in intensity.

“My fascination with letting images repeat and repeat—or in film's case ‘run on’—manifests my belief that we spend much of our lives seeing without observing.”
—Andy Warhol

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine

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Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.