Thursday, January 19, 2017

What’s in Your Character’s Past? by Kathryn Spurgeon

Every created character has a past. Whatever situation they are placed in by the writer, their response is affected by a prior event(s). Finding and relaying that event is key to developing well-rounded, thought-provoking characters. 

How do we, as writers, find the past events that influence our characters? Instead of starting with the past event, let’s start with the present and go backward.

1. Present Event. A novel cannot be called a true novel without conflict and action. Put your character in an awkward, frightful, or embarrassing situation. If the character does not respond with passion, then you have the wrong event. Try again.

2. Emotion. A character is like a make-believe manikin. The reader wants to see him or her come to life and step off the platform. A touchy event should cause a character’s emotions to ignite or explode: anger, jealousy, bitterness, etc. For the reader’s sake, be specific, describe that feeling even if it is inside the character’s head.

3. Flaw. According to “The Negative Trait Thesaurus: A Writers Guide to Character Flaws,” by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglish, this negative, out-of-control, unreasonable emotion reveals the character’s flaw. Every true-to-life character must have a flaw. If a flaw is not portrayed, then we create one-dimensional characters, less-than-human flat people, or manikins.

4. Lie. A negative response, a flaw, reveals what the character believes. So from the emotional explosion, delve into the reason for the disagreeable response. Why did the character react this certain way? What was the specific lie that caused them to respond so drastically? What was the character thinking? What was the belief?

5. Past Event. Every flaw, every lie, is connected to something in the character’s past, a time when that character first began believing this specific belief. Nail it down. What event could have happened to make the character believe this way? There’s your back story.

A simple example: I counseled a woman who got angry each time her husband tried to help her do anything. Throwing-dishes-kind-of-angry. That’s the negative emotion. What was her character flaw? She could not control her feelings when anyone made her feel stupid or helpless. The lie? She really believed she was stupid and had to hide that fact from others. The past event? Her father belittled her each time she brought home a poor grade, one time locking her in the closet for a ‘C’.  No matter if this is a college professor, the belief that she is stupid will affect her today.

Each character is unique, so there is not one systematic, concrete answer as to why a character responds a certain way.

Now as Christians, we have insight others may not have. We know Satan is the author of lies, all lies. And he uses these lies to destroy lives. So here we have it. Most of a character’s problems stem from a lie believed, which began during some particular event in his or her past. That lie is not truth. Therefore, the lie, the negative response, can be changed by helping the character believe the truth about that past event. We have God on the side of truth helping this poor, angry character, develop into a godlier person.

That could be our story line. Helping our characters change by believing the truth instead of the lie. That development may take the length of the book, but the change should be eye-opening.

For our angry professor, it could mean she realizes her father’s actions were yes, offensive and wrongly administered, but they were also meant to stir her to better grades. The past does not change, but the understanding of the past changes. In this case, the event had nothing to do with her intellect.

Re-think your characters, and discover what could have happened in their past that makes them respond negatively in the present.

An award winning author, Kathryn Spurgeon has published three books and over a hundred stories and articles. She is on the Writing Team at Henderson Hills Baptist Church, which has published eight compilations books. She holds a BBA from the University of Oklahoma and pursued Creative Writing at the University of Central Oklahoma. Kathryn and her husband, Bill, have six children and twelve grandchildren and love to help international students in Edmond, Oklahoma.

Kathryn Spurgeon’s Christian historical novel A Promise to Break: Love, Faith, and Politics in the 1930s, is based on a true story.

SIBYL TRIMBLE, a banker's daughter, promises her father to follow his Socialist beliefs. Then she meets FREMONT POPE, a handsome, down-on-his-luck hobo, and sees life on the poor side of town. The more she gets to know Fremont, the more she learns about God. Will she choose to follow what she has learned or fulfill her promise?
"Exceptionally well written, making it a consistently compelling read from beginning to end." James Cox, Editor-in-Chief, Midwest Book Review
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