Five-year-olds are genius character developers

Most of my stories start out as a scene in a place I don’t know with characters I don’t know. It takes me a lot of work to dig into my characters and figure out who they are, why they’re there, where they’re going, and so on and so forth.

Which means that during the character development phase of writing, I revert to a five-year-old.

I sit down with a notebook, write the character’s name at the top of the page, and ask why over and over again, long past the point of sanity. Why is she wearing long sleeves in the summer? To hide the scars on her arms. Why does she have scars on her arms? Because she tried to break up a knife fight. Why was she breaking up a knife fight? Because she was trying to keep one of the guys from getting killed. Why did she care what happened to him? Because he’s the only person who knows where her brother is who ran away three years ago.

And that’s generally the point where my questions explode. Wait, what? She has a lost brother? Why did he run away? How did she feel about it? Did they get along? Has she been looking for him? Has she heard anything from him since then?

So I take each of those branches and why them to death too. Usually, as my characters develop, so does my plot. Motivations become clear, side plots sneak in, and important details begin to organize themselves for slow reveal.

How do you flesh out your characters? Do they come full of detail, or does it take effort to learn about them?

Piano Lessons

When I was in high school, I memorized Grieg’s “Wedding Day at Troldhaugen” for a piano recital. It was thirteen pages long, and while I loved most of the song, there were two pages of slower tempo in the middle that killed me. For whatever reason, I could not get them into my head. And so, day after day, those were the pages that I had to practice, when really all I wanted to do was play through the pages that I loved. It was painful to restrain myself to playing only those two pages, but it eventually came together. Playing that song through entirely from memory remains one of the greatest triumphs in my memory.

Now I’m there again, only this time, it’s words on the page instead of notes. All I really want to do is look at all the nice, neat parts of my book that work well and flow well and sound clever. But there are these two chapters in the middle that are threatening to visit my nightmares for years to come. I kind of feel like I’m going to spontaneously combust if I have to read them one more time.

It’s hard to face the imperfections in your work. It’s painful to whack at them over and over again and feel like you’re cutting down the mightiest tree in the forest with a herring. But little by little, they come together. Patience, diligence, perseverance. It’ll come, it’ll come, it’ll come, it’ll come.

How do you get through the frustration of imperfection? What do you do to keep yourself focused on the problems that need to be solved?

PS If you need help staying focused, try this: place a thumb on either side of your forehead and bring your pointer fingers together to form a triangle. Point at your computer (or notebook or whatever) and shout “FOCUS!” as loud as you can. It works wonders with my piano students. You’re welcome! 🙂