Writing Character: Say the Things We Never Say

tunnel forward under  ft mchenry

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

5 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!

    Liked by 1 person

    • 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

  3. Elissa,
    Isn’t it interesting how events, moments, things we want to say, etc. help us to give movement to our characters or our manuscripts in general? I enjoyed this post in several ways. The first is because I could relate to it in my own work (which has been on hold for a few weeks now). But even though I may not be typing words on my manuscript, I constantly think about it especially when I read.
    Another aspect of this post which I think is helpful for me and your other readers are your prompts, and links to other relevant blogs by other bloggers. As bloggers, we don’t have to say it all especially because there are many other bloggers who have expanded on or complimented what we write. Linking to other blogs occurs in blogging but not as much as it could. As writers, we know relationships are important. We see that in our own characters. Without relationships among our characters, our books would be boring. Likewise, relationships in life are necessary for emotional, mental, and physical growth. By analogy, then, linking and relationships between bloggers are essential as we have seen in our WSS writing/creative group. Connecting with others helps us be better writers.

    I could go on about the many aspects of this post that are helpful as a person and a writer, but I will leave room for others! 😆

    Elissa, in the Twitter #wssprint on Fridays, in your blogging, and elsewhere, you are a gentle leader who supports people in many ways, especially in all aspects and types of writing – which is creativity. Perhaps, I can remind you how your leadership and creativity can help you as a mother pack your kids for holiday or othere similar situations. If you forget something or forget to do a thing that needed to be done, remember you are a gentle and creative person. You can use your gentleness with yourself and your creativity will be there for you to solve any problems. And as with your character, it is all right for us to simply say, without joking about it, “Being a ______ (fill in the blank) is so difficult.” or “I was wrong when I did __________.”
    Simple and true.

    Thank you for sharing these, and other ideas with us.
    – Monique


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