Thursday, 17 February 2011

Characters and Agreements

I'm always looking for ways to delve into my characters and find out what makes them tick, and I love reading books on the craft of writing or listening to mp3 files of writing workshops. Since listening to Michael Hauge's workshop at the RWA conference in 2007, I've found that his five questions he asks of characters really work for me, but I'm constantly looking for ways to peel back another layer of my hero and heroine.

Over the last month or two I've been dipping into a book called Walking With God by John Eldredge Not a book on writing, but a thoughtful, insightful journey of one man's desire to do just that. On a personal level, I've got a lot out of this book. It's made me think about the way I live my life, but this morning one of the short chapters made me not just search myself, but extend that questioning to the fictional people I write about. And why not? My characters might not be real, but I want them to seem that way. I want them to have the same depth and complexity as a real person.

Anyway, on to what I really want to talk about - agreements. Not the kind we make with other people, but the kind we make with ourselves. They're often only half-conscious thoughts, but they can lodge inside us an affect our behaviour. Let me explain…

Sometimes we make agreements with ourselves about minor things. For example, today I'm not feeling very well. I have a headache and I feel all virusy. Even though today is a day when I'd be at home writing, and I had planned to do just that, even if I'd thought I might allow myself some extra down time, what I really said inside myself was: "I'm too tired to write. I'm not thinking straight. Anything I might produce will probably be rubbish."

So, did I go with the schedule this morning and write? Did I heck. I messed around reading emails, put on a load of washing, played a bit of a computer game, basically pottered around. You see, that internal agreement I'd made with myself sabotaged my good intentions. And I think this is often the way we are. How often have you planned to do something, or decided you were no longer going to behave a certain way, only to find yourself doing exactly the opposite? I know I'm not alone in this, and often our silent choices have much deeper impact than a morning's work.

For example, sometimes we get an idea that someone thinks a certain way about us. We might be right or we might be wrong, but if we make one of those silent, internal agreements that "so-and-so hates me", it will affect how we perceive everything they say and do to us. Have you ever seen someone trying to do the right thing to mend a damaged relationship or friendship only to get nowhere? I have. And the reason their well-intentioned overtures failed wasn't because they were doing anything wrong, but because of the silent agreement the other party had made with themselves. "That person looks down on me," they'd told themselves, or "that person only thinks about themselves". So every attempt at reconciliation has been met with (at best) suspicion or (at worst) has been misinterpreted as something negative. Until the hurting friend breaks that internal agreement and opens up to the idea that the other person is genuine, reconciliation is going to be difficult. It's as if the agreement becomes a filter through which everything is processed - like wearing coloured glasses, rose-tinted or otherwise.

This idea got me thinking about fictional characters. One of Michael Hauge's character questions is "what is your character's wound?" and I think the idea of internal agreements fits very nicely with this. What does my character believe about life, about love? How has the painful thing in their past made up their mind about these things?

I asked my current heroine, a driven ballerina, if she had any agreements about these things. "Oh, yes," she said. "I believe I'll never have love, that I'll always be lonely. I'm not like other people, you see. I've always had this talent, have always been different. It has made me an outsider. I can look down upon the rest of the world and see people falling in love and being happy, but I doubt it will ever happen to me."

I think these silent agreements may well be rooted in fear, that they are part of our defence mechanisms. Is my ballerina afraid she will never be loved? Probably. So maybe she has decided it will be that way for her, because that protects her of believing otherwise and then discovering what she feared was true.

I can also see that for my character's arcs to be complete they are going to have to break that agreement with themselves, that they are going to have to challenge those inbuilt assumptions, because without doing that they will never face the fear that is nibbling away at themselves. And without facing that character flaw they are never going to complete their journey. So perhaps I need to add yet another question to my list: "when and how is my character going to break that agreement?"

I have a feeling these moments will lend themselves to either the mid-point of the story or the emotional low-point, the black moment, but it will be interesting to see if my theory pans out as I write this book.

So, what silent agreements have your characters made? And, more importantly, are there any agreements you have made with yourself that are holding you back?


Donna Alward said...

Fiona this is a GREAT post...especially as I'm having to ask some tough questions of my hero at the moment as I'm revising.

Fiona Harper said...

Thanks, Donna. I just love those A-ha! moments on the journey of improving our craft. Feel there's a lot more digging to be done here, though.