Writing Character: Say the Things We Never Say


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Over the last couple weeks, I’ve been posting a series on Novel Revision Strategies, to address the kinds of revision that take place during the intermediate process between a completed draft (in 3rd or 4th version) but not quite ready to polish and submit. Links for the whole series are below.

A major part of mid-process revisions includes evaluating conflicts, stakes and character motivation, and it is exactly this that has come up 3 times in my morning writing:

  • Stakes: At Wordsmith Studio, Kasie Whitener posted the next question for our craft discussion which references Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel. In chapter 2, Maass says, “If there is one single principle that is central to making any story more powerful, it is simply this: Raise the stakes.” Our discussion is to ask the question, “So what?” in challenging whether our own stories have set high stakes. Back in October, I addressed this challenge using a checklist in October Challenge: Raising the Stakes on Character Motivation.
  • Clueless: I stumbled on the post 50 Thoughts #5: I Don’t Know What I’m Doing by another Wordsmith Studio friend, Jeannine Bergers’ Everett, and was reminded how often — as writers, as parents, as adults — we are trying to figure something out and think ourselves incompetent and clueless but keep going anyway simply because it’s our job. Keep reading; this all comes together…
  • Say it: This actually came first. I started the morning writing 1,249 words that began with my character saying the words, “I was wrong to do that.”

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Raising Stakes: Characters Say the Things We Never Say

I’m actually having a stressful morning. Some readers who interact with me in other forums may know I ran into a number of irritating obstacles in life while Mercury was in retrograde the last couple weeks.

The details aren’t interesting, but are parallel to Jeannine’s memory of her mother saying, “I don’t know what I’m doing,” while cutting her children’s hair (yes, Jeannine is very funny; look for the link below because you’ll want to follow her). I’m trying to get on the road to take my kids on their summer vacation to visit my parents and am nearly paralyzed with worrying that I’ll forget to pack something, that there’s some business I was supposed to attend to here in town, that…

Just as I was tempted to tweet something like, “It’s really scary to be a mom,” I realized what a genuinely true statement that is, and how blatantly obvious, and how no one ever says it and how, well… I wasn’t going to either.

And… of course, since I’m so darn obsessed with this novel right now, I was less concerned with feeling bad for myself than I was struck by the truth that this is a big part of raising the stakes for characters: the power of saying it.

I could describe the tedious list of things it takes to pack the car for a trip with the kids. I could even write the details in a way that is interesting and evocative. In chatting with a friend, we’d roll our eyes and laugh, make it into a charming joke where we empathize over parenting or the summer heat. But, as long as we’re not drama queens, it’d stop there, right?  That’s how stress gets used in our real lives: I turn it into some socially appropriate, “can you believe it?” joke about my day and move on.

I don’t tweet the true statement about the fear or anxiety.

Because I’m not a character in a novel.

But my character is.  And what got me writing this morning was an a-ha trigger of the one line my character needs to say.

At the moment she abandons her mother and sister and grandmother on a trip to Ireland to run off with a man she just met, she doesn’t need reams of polite excuses as to why she’s justified. She needs to say what we don’t say in polite chatter: “I was wrong to do it.” The second I typed that line this morning, an entire new insight opened into the relationship between Carinne and her mother, and their shared grief over her lost brother.

In raising our character’s stakes, our characters shouldn’t politely back down from making a wrong choice or being scared. Fear and anger and mistakes are where conflict happens. Even if I later edit that sentence back out, treating it as a prompt, and only keep the writing it provoked, it was fascinating how readily the flood gates opened the second I said words we don’t normally speak out loud.

“It’s really scary to be a mom.” And all the honest, true details of that emotion write themselves. “I was wrong to do it.” And all the honest emotions of what it means to have done something knowing it was wrong, immediately raise the more interesting question of, “Well then why did you do it?” 

This a-ha could not have found more of a kindred spirit than in Jeannine’s post (DO read it, when you’re done here), in which her mother says blatantly, out loud, what no one confesses: “I don’t know what I’m doing.” As Jeannine’s post and my own experience this morning reveal, it is amazing the authenticity and empowerment that actually saying these unsaid statements produces.

Want to Turn This Into a Prompt?

  • What is one of your character’s values? In what way does the story’s conflict or your character’s choice violate that value? What is a statement your character would not admit to? Now, make your character say it.
  • What is something your character fears? Make your character say this out loud.
  • What weakness or fear does your character fear will keep him/her from what he/she desires? Say it out loud.
  • And, to keep you on track with WSS’s craft chat, ask yourself about any of these questions and statements, “So what?” Are these high stakes, and in what way could you raise them?

Do Now:

Do go read Jeannine Bergers Everett’s post on her blog Mobyjoe Cafe: Throw Out 50 Thoughts #5: I Don’t Know What I’m Doing. Jeannine is extremely funny and insightful, so I really recommend following her.

If mention of the Wordsmith Studio craft discussions has you curious, look for announcements of our group’s weekly writing activities via the #wschat hashtag on Twitter.

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What About You?

Are you exploring issues of conflict or stakes in a character you are writing?  What challenges or obstacles do you find?  Or, what tactics have you found that get you more authentically or deeply into your characters’ motivation?

For more posts on this site related to character development:

For my current series on Novel Revision Strategies:

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4 Comments

Filed under Novel Writing, Revision, Writing Character, Writing Prompt

4 responses to “Writing Character: Say the Things We Never Say

  1. Elissa, this is exactly the dilemma I had with a character in a short story I’ve been working on. I realized just last night that she needs a deeper understanding of what she’s about to do, knows it’s wrong, and does it anyway–thus raising the stakes! Thanks for this–a great post, as all of them in this series have been. I don’t know how you’re doing this and keeping the novel going, too!

    • elissa field

      Gerry, thanks for commenting — you and I always seem to be running parallel in our challenges with characters. It’s funny, what you said about keeping the novel going and writing the blog series — it’s been a lot harder to keep up with while vacationing with the boys and my family this week. As much as I’ve gotten done on these revisions this month, I think I’m still going to be frustrated as the new draft still needs so much work, and school starts too soon! I hope your work is going well.

  2. Pingback: Does Your Characters Speak To You? | writingsbykrystol

    • elissa field

      Thanks for including link to my article on getting characters to “Say the Things We Never Say” as part of your post, Krystol.

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