Aroian Editorial proudly publishes this guest post by Jill C. Baker, author of Tory Roof, finalist in the 2019 Independent Publishers of New England Book Awards.
My family shares a joke that originated when our younger son was asked to mow the lawn. He turned to my husband and said, “What’s my motivation?” He wasn’t looking for money; he wanted to know why it would be worth spending his time cutting grass.
That sentiment comes back to haunt me as I move from marketing and copywriting to authoring books. I’m struck by it when editors like Karen Aroian ask, as she did in a high-level developmental audit of my first book, not only what my motivation was in crafting things a certain way but why my characters acted as they did. What did they want? How did they regard their counterparts? What were their backstories?
My inner self silently protested. “Isn’t it enough that I scripted their behaviors? Do I have to analyze them, too?” Apparently, yes.
For me, this kind of scrutiny is uncomfortable. You see, I come from a writing background where we rarely asked personal questions. To sell, we determined a pain point, then offered our product or services as a solution. To fund raise, we tugged at the heart strings, then served up a portion of guilt. For presentations, we controlled the message with data and timing. For advertising, we touted benefits.
Narrative writing is much more intrusive. Authors are expected to get intimate, messy, and emotionally involved with our characters – to know them inside out, read their minds, share their angst, and anticipate their next moves. I suppose that writing a blog about this subject, when it is not my strong suit, is somewhat odd, but I figure if I find character development challenging, others might as well.
So, here are five paths I’ve identified to help master this task. I would love to hear others.
1. Replace old mindsets with new mandates.
Now is the time to set aside former guidelines and disciplines, and instead, tell a tale for the joy of it. Recognize and embrace the goals, tools, and dynamics of being an author.
Say good-bye to copywriting: Say hello to storytelling:
Ask and call to action Arc and pacing
Biased persuasion Objective observation
Authoritative voice Subjective voice
Time and space constraints Luxurious contemplation
Programmed progression Discretionary page flips, scrolls
Goal to prompt a decision Goal to inform and entertain
2. Listen to your beta readers.
One of my beta readers is particularly astute in assessing character authenticity, and it’s usually a secondary character who catches her eye. In my first book, Tory Roof, she pointed out that the husband didn’t seem believable. For someone so smart (a teacher), he was surprisingly naïve. To resolve the disconnect, I expanded his academic persona. I made him distracted by lofty thoughts and dismissive of the mundane. I positioned him as somewhat ‘removed,’ more of an optimist than a realist, blindly trusting, and a bit socially inept. This made it more likely that he could be intellectually gifted but lacking in “street smarts” – i.e. gullible.
3. Capture characteristics that humanize.
Karen gave me a solid tip that I’ve since applied: endow your characters with a quirk, characteristic, nuance, or behavior to distinguish them. I knew that characters needed a flaw, but the idea of a recurring “tell” (a tic, an expression, a gesture) proved an excellent way to foreshadow their intent. So, in Book No. 1, I have one of my characters clearing her throat when she isn’t quite speaking the truth. In Book No. 2, my male lead has a shock of hair that falls across his right eye – in past and present lives – connecting the physicality and “giving him a rock star attitude whether he wanted one or not.”
4. Create opportunities for character introspection.
Since I’m not naturally inclined to dive into my characters’ psyche, I’ve learned to let them do some of the work themselves. In Tory Roof, my main character looks in a mirror as she assesses a situation. (“Her pale hazel eyes stared back, wide and innocent.”) She lets her thoughts wander as she gazes out to a barn obscured by rain. She reminisces about her college days as she opens an old yearbook and, in the process, plants clues to the plot. In Silver Line, my female lead from long ago keeps a diary, confides in a frontier doctor, and shares her theories about good men as she cleans her cabin. That spares me from doing any of the above.
5. Longer scenes might help.
I recently received feedback from a Judge for the 27th Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards, having submitted Silver Line as Genre Fiction. While I received top marks for Plot and Story Appeal, this judge pointed out that some of my scenes felt short. She suggested that longer scenes would give me more time to flesh out characters and smooth transitions. She also reminded me that each scene is like a story unto itself – with a setting, characters, and action – and that I would do well to address each element.
With this advice, I am finalizing edits on Absent, Book No. 3. In this book, Carter, the husband we first met, is on a journey of self-discovery. He’s now working at a think tank, living in a world that’s precise and analytical. We learn that he’s partially color-blind, so his black-and-white perspective is both literal and physical. That’s why he’s so intrigued when a new client – a synesthete who sees words as colors – offers to take him on four sensory-rich journeys to enhance his color perception and improve his emotional intelligence.
In the process, he discovers something troubling at the facility where he is being treated, and he starts to investigate. But just when I think I’ve got a good subplot cooking, in comes my editor with a note in the margin: “What’s his motivation?” I reply that it’s a combination of personal curiosity and concern for his company. My editor presses for more justification. “Why is he worried? Does he tell his boss and get permission to poke around? Or is he doing this on his own? What could the impact be?”
So back I go, trying to get inside this guy’s head. There’s the firm’s reputation to consider because if it’s compromised, they could lose business. There’s the possibility of conflicts of interest – or the appearance of such – which would not bode well for their government clients. There could be risk by association if unsavory people were involved. And there’s a sense of personal duty because it was Carter who accepted the account in the first place.
To further elaborate, I let Carter explain his concern at key intervals. With each journey, he is exposed to heightened sensory input, which he ties to his work projects. Some of his trips are pleasurable. Others are gut-wrenching. Now I find myself asking, “What is his motivation? Why would he go through this? What does he hope to accomplish? What does he want to discover?”
By forcing myself to get to know my characters better, I’m beginning to understand that the author is meant to be the instigator, the conduit, and the interpreter, not just the storyteller. I guess one thing I’ve also learned is that once you start asking questions, it never stops. So, maybe that at its core, is the true role of the author – to push for accountability and to force secrets into the light.