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Monday, January 11, 2016

Building Better Characters - and Stories

 Last time I was here we talked about the questions we can ask our characters in order to make them better, something I'm a big fan of.  Since then I found an interesting post onThird Level Emotions written by Donald Maass for Writer Unboxed, one of my favorite sites about the craft and business of fiction. I wrote this post for my other blog mainewords but I thought it was worth sharing here again.

"Start by picking any moment in your story when your protagonist (or any other character) feels something strongly. What is that feeling. Write it down, Now, pause at that moment. As what else does this character feel simultaneously? Write that down. Next ask, what else does my character feel at this moment. This third level emotion is our focus." 

In my current tale there are three estranged sisters who have brought together by their mother's murder. One of the sisters, the oldest, is Alice so I did the exercise for her first. At the beginning of the story Alice is devastated (first level emotion) by the news of her mother’s murder. Not only does she love her mother as her mother but also as a friend. But what else does Alice feel simultaneously? Anger (second level emotion) at whoever did it. How could they? Why? What’s wrong with people? She hopes they rot in hell forever.  Next ask, what else does Alice feel at this moment? Afraid. (third level emotion) Her mother has been the one who has led her through society, provided her with a home and a lifestyle she not only wouldn’t be able to keep up on her salary, but would be afraid to even try to keep up on her own. Without her mother, she feels lost and afraid and alone again, like the kid she used to be and couldn’t wait not to be so she wouldn’t feel like this.
Examine this third level emotion: What is it like to feel this feeling?  Alice hoped never to feel like this again; she thought growing up would mean she wouldn’t. It’s even worse now because there isn’t even an adult to rely on. What might (or should) this character be feeling instead?  What would a finer human being feel? She would feel and exhibit the proper amount of grief for the proper amount of time and then get on with her life and everything would go back to being fine and dammit, what was wrong with her? Why did she always feel like she was faking being grown up? Regardless, why is this feeling the right and only one for this character right now? Because she needs to be down so she can learn to rely on her sisters who will help her be strong, for herself and others. Finally, what does having this third level-feeling tell this character about herself? What does it say about her condition? That she has some shite to deal with and get through. Has this character sunk or risen?  Sunk. Has this character grown or regressed?  Let’s call it a set back. What’s the truth in it?  She’s probably not the only person to feel this way when one of their parents dies. How is this feeling beautifully universal or painfully unique?  Is feeling this feeling to dwell in heaven or burn in hell? It’s hellish. She can’t wait to move on, but it’s going to take some work and she’s going to have to...change.

I did this exercise for all three sisters and it was interesting to see both the similarity in their answers, and the differences. It also helped me realize that Alice isn't as grown up as she may appear to others (or as grown up as I thought she was!), which helps me know how she reacts to situations, and clues me into her inner feelings so I can write her deeper.

Now it's your turn. I'd love it if you'd share in the comments...

Wednesday, I'll be back with more on character building, because if you don't have interesting characters, who's going to want to follow them around for 300 odd pages? 


Liz A. said...

That is an interesting exercise. One for when I have more time (not when I'm quickly going through blogs.)

Liza said...

I liked this the first time I read it. Once I finally plow through my first draft, I think it will be very useful in the editing. Good way to get depth.

Huntress said...

It would be fun to try this on Cinderella and the two stepsisters, LOL.

Thx. I love/need this

Charity Bradford said...

I'm going to try this with my characters as I do this final edit. It's never too late to dig deeper and make the changes for a better story. Thanks!

Jewel said...

Does this exercise also work with comedy?
Or is comedy enjoyable because it generally stays at the surface level?