Tuesday, April 10, 2012


JAN BROGAN -  Because I always read brain books,  I'm reading Getting Past Your Past by Francine Shapiro. This is no pop-psychology book, Shapiro invented the EMDR therapy technique I write about frequently. This is a rigorously-tested therapy that is used extensively by the Department of Defense to treat combat veterans suffering from post traumatic stress disorder.

I'm reading this book because I love everything to do with the brain, and because I'm pretty sure this woman is a genius in the field of psychology, but I'm finding it extremely relevant to fiction writing.  Shapiro explains in detail how the brain makes associations "in relation to everything we do, think, or feel."  And that every single past experience heavily influences "most of our characteristics and responses to the world."

She later goes on to detail certain patients where their past experiences reveal themselves in physical ticks and ailments.

I can't help but think this is handy both for our protagonists and the incredibly messed up villains we often create.

Yesterday we talked about how clothes - or something superficial - make character -in a sort of short hand use.  Here, I'm interested in how the depth of experience and memoir make character.

I've never been a big fan of coming up with an entire character bio before I start writing a new book, but now I'm thinking that it may be important to know more about the both the deep and minor trauma that a character has experienced and how he/she may have adapted to them.  In other words, I need to know more about my character's nightmares.

So tell me Reds, what MUST you know of your characters's pasts and past experiences before you start writing?  And what might you find out along the way?

LUCY BURDETTE: I feel like I need to know my character's family history--I thought this when I worked as a therapist too. For instance, Cassie Burdette, aspiring golfer, came from divorced parents and an alcoholic mother who felt helpless to change her life. Her mother interpreted Cassie's successes as a sign of Cassie moving away from her--and toward her father. This wasn't all conscious of course, but it hampered Cassie's growth to believe that success in golf and life felt like a betrayal to her mom. That's the kind of thing I need to start out with--so the conflicts become part of the character's motivations and choices.

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: You know? I think this may be THE most important thing about character creation. I am too lazy to make character bibles, but you can be sure I know and dig into my characters' pasts...oh, absolutely. Jane Ryland's mother was incredibly supportive and thoughtful--but she died. (I know, but I wrote it BEFORE my mother died! And mine, well, "supportive and thoughtful" would not be in the top ten words I'd choose to describe her.) Jane's father is brusque and withholding and controlling--she's tried to please him since she was a little kid.

I do, Jan, find out some of it along the way. "Why would you do that?" I wonder, when a character surprises me. And then I realize why. It also works the other way--I think: here's a man who's trying to prove he's as good a cop as his grandfather was. What would he do now? And the answer appears.

HALLIE EPHRON: That's exactly what it's like for me! There's nothing more important for the main character than to know what's the seminal experience or relationship from the character's past that drives her, consciously or unconsciously, in the present. Then, when the character does something that surprises me, I have to come around again and figure out how that makes sense in light of the character's past experiences.

Characters are often trying to "get it right this time."

RHYS BOWEN: Molly Murphy's mother's voice is a constant in her head, usually criticizing her behavior. Her mother was a negative, self-righteous person, a drudge who died young, so not wanting to turn out like her mother is a big driving force behind Molly's actions.
Lady Georgie's mother is still very much around, but Georgie still feels the betrayal of when her mother ran out on them when she was only a baby. She knows that her mother is not someone she can trust. And she finds out in Naughty in Nice that her father had also been someone she couldn't trust. Luckily she has a Cockney grandfather who has become her rock.

Both my heroines have had to contend with being utterly alone and having no one to rely on. It has made them stronger.

I am always amazed and delighted when my characters surprise me by revealing something about themselves. I didn't know that Evan was claustrophobic until he had to go through the Chunnel and came up green and sweating. Then, of course, I sent him down a slate mine. We have to make our characters suffer to get the best out of them!

DEBORAH CROMBIE:  This is so interesting, Jan!  I have a character suffering from PTSD in NO MARK UPON HER, Kieran Connolly, who was a medic in Iraq and lost his unit to an IED, so I had done quite a bit of reading about EMDR.  And in the WIP (must remember to ask my editor if I can go public with the title--I'm getting tired of calling it the WIP) the whole book revolves around a traumatic experience suffered by one of the characters when he was thirteen.

Hank, I don't do official character bibles, either, but I do work out very complicated back stories for the characters, usually in a journal, before I actually start writing the book. But the most fun is when you discover things about your characters in the process of writing, like Rhys did with Evan.  I think it's that good old right brain/left brain thing again--the logical work we do on our characters beforehand allows those "magic" things to happen as the story unfolds!

ROSEMARY HARRIS: I usually sketch out a brief bio for each of the main characters, but in the same way that you get to know people in real life, I get to know the characters as they grow on my pages. The book I'm writing now is somewhat different from the first four books in that there's a lot of backstory - except I've just realized that it isn't backstory - it's the story. And the characters' past experiences very much influence the way they behave.

JAN: So tell us, what do you think the role of pain and experience is in our fictional characters? In our every day life ?

14 comments:

Linda Rodriguez said...

I'm like you, Deb. I don't do character bibles, but at least on the main characters, I write journals about them, finding out their important backstory.

I like what Hallie said about characters "often trying to get it right this time." Like all the rest of us?

Still, they love to surprise me on the page--and I love it when they do, even if I'm tearing out my hair to understand why they would do that.

Like Rhys' Molly, Skeet always has her Gran's voice in her head, trying to keep her grounded and right-thinking--and trying to get her to more fully accept her Cherokee heritage.

Great post, Jan. I'll have to get that book!

Susan said...

I find it interesting that so many of you mention mothers who had a negative influence on their daughters.

Hallie Ephron said...

How observant of you, Susan! It's a major theme in my work in progress, too. Never mind our CHARACTER'S tramas... as writers we keep rehashing our own and trying to get it right. And that's all I'm going to say about that.

Jan Brogan said...

Think I'm going to use the journal idea -- thanks Debs and LInda!

Susan, I noticed that too......

Lisa Alber said...

Oh I love brain stuff, too! I'm definitely going to check out the book you mentioned, Jan. Here's another fascinating one: THE BRAIN THAT CHANGES ITSELF by Norman Doidge, M.D.

I can't get started until I know my main characters' backgrounds. I'm partial to the way Elizabeth George describes it in her writing book. She talks about core needs and pathological manuevers. And she talks about three telling details that hint at the characters' back stories...

I need to know my characters before I think about plotting. Since plot comes out of character (for me at least), then I guess this makes sense. :-)

Jungle Red Writers said...

OOOOH - Lisa,

I love that three telling details. Really, thanks. Off to my Journal to work it out.

And will definitely check out Norman's book.

~jan

Jungle Red Writers said...

Lisa,

I just noticed that there is a quote from Norman Doidge on the FRONT of the Francine Shapiro book!

~jan

Lisa Alber said...

Too cool. The power of the blurb--now I'm even more interested in reading the Shapiro book! :-)

Linda Rodriguez said...

Lisa,

I love the Elizabeth George book, too. WRITE AWAY. I really think it's one of the best, if not the best, writing book I've read. And I'm a writing book junkie.

I think one of the most useful things is her THADs--Talking Head Avoidance Devices. Ways to write a scene where the dialogue is important or gives important info without turning the characters into those talking heads on news shows.

Lisa Alber said...

I agree, Linda! There are certain sections I return to when I'm starting a new project -- THADs is one of them.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Three telling things? OOh. Fascinating. DO you have an example?

Lora in Florida said...

I love you guys...but you are too deep and introspective for me today. Can't we discuss superficial stuff like how clothes make the man, like yesterday??

I would think that coming up with a complete character bible would be extremely limiting. Then there wouldn't be any surprises available.

Lisa Alber said...

Hi Ryan. Sure, let me dig out some notes...Okay, I'm copying in some workshop notes, but this stuff is also in Elizabeth George's writing book...She's into detail character analyses.

"Once character analysis done, use it to help you come up with three telling details that make sense for the character:
1. A physical detail. Doesn’t need to be a gesture, can be clothes that chooses to wear etc. Tattoos, scars, etc. What you see on the person that immediately tells something about them. (i.e. a mole doesn’t count.)
2. A psychological detail with physical manifestation. This manifestation especially as related to the pathological maneuver.
3. One thing that owns that tells something about the character.

The point of having three telling details at your disposal for the narrative is that they’re easy ways to hint at the character’s backstory/character/personality without telling reader. They show the character.

These three details should be unusual and unique and highly specific and intimate. For example: a character that always carries her father’s monogrammed handkerchief. These details telling in the sense that say something about the character’s past—like a scar from a childhood accident etc. These telling details have nothing to do with the plot.

Most especially, these telling details should reflect the core need/pathological maneuver. The telling details show the core need/pathological maneuver, which is why there’s no need to state them explicitly."

Example from one of EG's novels. Character: Eve. Core need: competency. Pathological manuever when need not met/under stress: control freak/perfectionism. Sooo...

Telling details:
Physical: She has a split eyebrow from childhood accident
Psychological detail with physical manifestation: She grows her bangs so no one sees the scar—this shows her perfectionism, must always appear perfect.
Thing that owns: (unfortunately didn't write this down--but would be something unique that hints a backstory)

I love this stuff! :-)

Jan Brogan said...

Thanks Lisa!

I had actually tried to google the info on the three telling details so this helps a lot!!