by Missy Tippens
Missy, here. Don’t you just love this photo? I took it this summer after dropping my daughter off at horse riding camp. Each day that I drove her out into the country to the farm, I would admire the pastoral setting. It relaxed me. And each morning I would roll down my windows and enjoy the fresh air, the quaint duck pond.
So about the third day of camp, I stopped and took this photo with my cell phone. When I picked up my daughter that afternoon, I told her I got the photo. Well, she just died laughing. “What?” I asked, figuring that she was embarrassed (once again) by mom doing something so silly as stopping in the middle of road to snap a photo of some person’s yard.
Then she (with way too much enjoyment) informed me the ducks weren’t real. That they hadn’t moved all week.
So the next day, I slowed the car and took a good look. And yes, sure enough, those stupid ducks didn’t move at all. :) Oh, boy. This mom felt silly. That relaxed, peaceful feeling zipped right out my rolled-down windows, and my peals of laughter rang across the water.
This beautiful, peaceful setting looked good on the outside…but had no real substance.
Kind of like story characters can do if we’re not careful.
So, you have your photos of just what your characters are going to look like…red hair, blue eyes, freckles. And you know her favorite food is pizza. She may even have a quirky habit or two. You know her job. You know where she lives. And you maybe know a bit about her family. You may have even filled out a big ol’ character chart with a gazillion questions.
But do you know enough about your characters to know what choices they’ll make that lead them to the big black moment of the story? Do you know what their character arcs will look like? We have to dig really deep—deeper than hair color, jobs, sibling order, family of origin.
One of the best workshops I ever attended was at Moonlight & Magnolias, and I think I also attended again at RWA National. It was taught by Debra Dixon and titled Climbing the Slippery Slope. Deb’s focus was on how everything we put in the story builds toward that big black moment (BBM).
And I think to do that, we need to know two big things. First, what’s the hero/heroine’s biggest fear? And second, what does he/she long for? Show it fairly early in the story, then show him gradually moving toward security (working through his fears), risking reaching for that longing or dream. But then bam, in the BBM he’s hit with what he fears most. In His Forever Love, my hero’s biggest fear was that he wouldn’t fit in (like he didn’t fit in as a child and teen). He longs for family and to have a place to belong.
He starts off in the story feeling like an outsider but gradually (through scenes where I show small steps) starts to feel like maybe he has a place in the affections of the heroine. He hopes to have his Granny move to live with him, to finally have family nearby. And he starts to dream of the heroine coming to live in his world and being a part of his life with him.
So with a guy like that, what’s his BBM going to be? When he declares his love, is she going to say, no, sorry, you don’t make enough money? Or no, sorry, our beliefs are too different? Or nope, I’ve decided you won’t make a good father to my children? Of course not. I’ve built the story so that even though he’s fearful and scared to fall for the heroine, he finally risks it all. And what happens?
She can’t leave her family obligations—can’t leave her world, the place she fits in so well, to make a life with him. And to add to that he realizes his granny needs to stay in her own world with her new love interest and the heroine. So they all belong together…without him.
In my original ending, I planned to have my hero decide that he’s found his place to fit in, so he chooses to give up his blossoming career to stay in the small town he’s finally growing to love. But as I was nearing the end of the book, it hit me that, sure, that would be a great ending for my heroine. But for me, the story had turned into my hero’s story. For once in his life, he needed someone to choose him. So I changed the ending from how it was in my synopsis. And…spoiler alert once again…I had her give up her secure life (and I revised the story so that it was the best thing for everyone involved if she left) and to go up to Boston to tell him she’s there for him.
That’s how you climb toward the slippery slope. Set up your characters for that fall! And they’ll develop into much deeper characters. We’ll relate to them more and root for them more. They’ll grow and change and work toward earning their happy ending.
What do y’all think? What deepens character for you?
This post first appeared in Seekerville August 17, 2009.
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