Friday, May 22, 2015

Using Character Knowledge

by Jean Henry Mead

Most writers have experienced plot block at least once during their careers. The story’s going along great when all of a sudden you come to a complete stop as though a stone wall stood in your path. Surprised and a little fearful, you can’t seem to get going again. You either abandon the project or put it aside, hoping you’ll eventually come back to it.

A good plot is like a good marriage. It begins with plenty of enthusiasm and energy, but after that first rush you have to settle in for the long haul. Your story has to deepen and acquire rich details so that your reader doesn’t lose interest. Sometimes, when you’ve run out of action and detail, you might begin to hate the story and wish you’d never started it. That’s when you’ve run out of what William McCranor Henderson called “character knowledge.” He said, “When you hit that wall and don’t know where to go next, the best solution is to dig deeper.”

It's time to unearth intimate facts about your characters. Not everything about them, "just the stuff we really need to know about our characters. Ideally, this includes the two or three key nuggets of personality or character history that can make you fall back in love with your story."

An example of character knowledge might be that your protagonist, who is allergic to peanuts, risks exposure to the deadly dust when he follows the killer into a Georgia canning factory. His allergy doesn’t necessarily add up to character knowledge unless it causes something crucial to happen to the storyline. 

One way to dig deeper into your character's past is to interview yourself. In a focused free-write, jot down a few lines and answer the questions honestly. Such as:

Q. Why would John marry a woman he doesn’t love?

A. Her father owns a large company and will offer John a management job. His wife will inherit the company some day, making John a wealthy man. Maybe the old man will have an unfortunate accident and John won’t have to wait that long for the money.
Q. But won’t his wife know that he doesn’t love her?
A. He’ll shower her with gifts and pretend that she’s the love of his life.
Q. But everyone thinks he’s a great guy.
A. So did I until I started researching his character.

If you’re not getting the right answers from yourself, interview your characters.

Q. Brandi, why were you involved in the accident?

A. I lost control of my car.
Q. Were you texting while driving?
A.  No. A threatening call caused me to drop my cell phone.

Properly interviewing characters can unearth traits and faults you didn't know existed, which can lead to plot complications and solutions. Then, when you rewrite that blocked scene, you can take a new run at the wall and watch it disappear because you have character knowledge that will allow you to view the scene through new eyes. 


Morgan Mandel said...

Yes, everything seems so exciting at the beginning of a novel, but after a while the real work begins!

Jean Henry Mead said...

Then there's that sagging middle . . . : )

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