Notes From A Debut Author

Characters and Conflict

In last week’s blog—Beginnings—I ended it listing the three basic elements to writing a romance. The Hero and Heroine (and their fated love of course.) The Conflict. The Resolution to achieve a HEA. If you were expecting me to tell you all about these elements today, I’m sorry to disappoint you. That information is easy to find in most romance reference books and websites, and anyways, it would be eye-wateringly boring.

Instead, I’ll tell you a little about how these critical elements developed in my story. If you thought it went smoothly, you’d be wrong!

When I sat down to begin writing Luke’s Redemption, I already had a basic plot outline. The idea came flowing into my head a few nights before my departure for the beach (for the beginning of my new life.) It was around midnight. I don’t know what triggered my creative juices, but suddenly I could hear king-sec-sniper-badgeKatya’s footsteps beating a desperate rhythm down a dark, cobble-stoned road in the early hours of the morning. It was dead quiet. New Orleans was hung over from Mardi Gras. As I watched her, I realized I was looking through the scope of a sniper lens. Was I her hunter or her hero? Or both? My story unfurled at such a rapid pace that I was terrified if I fell asleep, when I woke my idea, like an elusive dream, would be gone. In a mad panic I turned on my bedside lamp, and spent the next hour typing manically on my iPhone. When I turned off the light, I had the beginnings of my novel. The next time I looked at it was one month later, when I sat down to write.

MY HERO AND HEROINE – Luke and Katya

To flesh out my characters I drafted a comprehensive Character Questionnaire. I wrote out a list of questions for my characters that went on for pages: What they looked like; their likes and dislikes; where they went to school; who were their best friends. I included more complicated questions: how do their friends describe them; what was their most valued possession. As I said, it was relentless and never-ending.

And totally useless!

Because when I tried to answer the more complicated questions, I came unstuck. How could I find the answers without asking the most important question of all, in fact, the only one that mattered—WHO is Luke? WHO is Katya?

My story was about betrayal—a daughter betrayed by her beloved father, and a naïve young woman betrayed by her new lover. The question I found myself asking was WHY? Why would Katya’s father betray her? Who was he? Where did he come from? Why did he make such a horrendous decision? The same problem happened when I turned to Luke. Why would Luke betray a woman he fell for at first sight? What force in his life could possibly motivate him more than love?

I’d slammed into the wonderful world of CONFLICT.

I fast discovered there is no single conflict in a story. On a basic level, there is Outer and Inner Conflict. Outer Conflict is easy. What is physically stopping Luke and Katya from getting it on? The answer—my protagonist. See, easy. It was equally stress free to plot the conflict—read bullets and mayhem— that would endanger Katya’s life. I even added in more than one outer conflict, and created an unexpected plot twist.

face-151297_1280But Inner Conflict—now that was a whole other story. And the guts that I believe make or break your novel. The more I dug into my characters, the more I found layers and layers of burdensome conflicts. And unraveling them brought me face to face with their inner demons. This understanding was even better than several shots of tequila! I’ve always loved psychology, and spent years studying it. Now I had the opportunity to apply it in my fiction.

But when you try and understand a person’s motives for a particular behavior, you often have to go back to the beginning. All of us carry emotional baggage. We may escape a difficult start in life, but we do not escape the damage it burns into our psychi. Luke and Katya’s inner conflicts began years before their love story ignited, even before they were born. It started with their parents, and the pain these damaged people inflicted on themselves, and then upon their children.

I was both thrilled, and frustrated. Thrilled, because it was huge to realize we are a product of both who we come from and where we come from—and my story would benefit richly from this understanding. And frustrated because I was going to have to build a family tree, with all its intricate family dynamics, for both Luke and Katya. And more than likely, most of what I created would not make it into my novel. But without it, I would never understand the true nature of my characters.

I cannot emphasize enough how much this background work rounded out my characters. My clear understanding of the pain Luke and Katya had faced as children, and then as adults, dictated every move they made, especially how they responded under stress. It even extended to my support character, Nicu, Katya’s father.

Make Your Characters Suffer

Character development is tightly interwoven with plot development. One cannot proceed successfully without the other. Because of my love of psychology, my character’s growth arcs became more important than my broader story arc. At times, I even adapted my story structure to accommodate my characters’ growth patterns. I loved making Luke and Katya respond to each other in unexpected ways, while still ensuring their response did not contradict their inner Self. I also learned I was a sadist! Make Your Characters Suffer! I read this in more than one writing article, and it made so much sense, I wrote it out and stuck it on my wall. I keep it there as a constant reminder.

What Happened to my Character Questionnaire?

I adjusted my approach in my second book, Gray’s Promise. I still have my Character Questionnaire, but I have tossed out all those innocuous questions. The little things that make us who we are—like I love pizza but hate green pepper on the topping; I have a habit of scrunching up my nose; I cry when I watch Gray’s Anatomy—those kind of things, I now allow them to develop on their own. I love tapping away on my keyboard, and experiencing my characters develop weird and wonderful peccadillos I never planned. Oh yes!

Tip: If you are writing a series, keep track of all your lead character’s habits, language use (especially curse words), style of inner voice, wardrobe, everything important that stands out as key character indicators. It’s vital to keep continuity throughout your series. Being a film editor, I am quick to notice a lapse in continuity, and it jars me out of a story. The same as when you are watching a film and a microphone drops into shot. Drives me nuts. (One of my peccadillos!)

Finding my character’s voice.

I can write about this all day. As my characters come into focus I begin to hear their voices. How they sound is dictated by all the background research I do in understanding where they come from, and what sort of life they have lived as an adult. For example, Luke had a rough start in life, and went on to join the marines and become a recon sniper. His language can be coarse, and peppered with curse words. As my story outline becomes more detailed, so my characters voices get louder. Often, after I’ve drafted a scene, I hear streams of dialogue and whole conversations. Of course this tends to happen when I’m walking on the beach! No matter. I let it flow and when I get home, race to type it up. I don’t worry about writing the stuff that supports the dialogue. Sometimes, the dialogue is just about character development, and doesn’t fit into an existing scene. Then I toss it into a store of Miscellaneous Scenes (more about this when I discuss Scenes.)

Increasingly, I rely on this weird and wacky method of writing. For me, it makes it easier and easier to develop my stories. As I previously mentioned, in Gray’s Promise most of my outline is just chunks of dialogue. It would seem, by accident, I have found the backbone of my writing style—honest & passionate dialogue.

Come back soon. I’ll be chatting more about Dialogue, POV (Point of View), and a bunch of other stuff. I would love to read your thoughts or comments below, or send me a personal email.

Happy writing.

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8 replies
  1. Tena
    Tena says:

    Thanks for sharing! Its a process we writers all go through to some extent. I too use a detailed character worksheet for each of the characters before starting the story. This helps me throughout the writing process of their story. Best of luck!

    Reply
  2. Carmen Stefanescu
    Carmen Stefanescu says:

    Great post, Anni! An interesting insight into the way your story came to life.
    I totally agree with the idea-make your characters to suffer!
    A good piece of advice I read sometime ago given by a great writer. This brings readers’ interest and their compassion for our heroes.
    Best of luck with your writing!

    Reply
    • Anni Fife
      Anni Fife says:

      Thanks for visiting Carmen. Yep, when things are slowing down in your story, punish your character, even if it’s with some lousy weather! Looking forward to being on your blog in November. xx

      Reply

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