by Tosca Lee
I don’t know about you, but almost every time I sit down to write, I think to myself, “I can’t do this.” Or worse: “I don’t want to do this.” Because it’s too hard. I’m too sleepy, stupid, uninspired, anxious, or distracted. The good news—great news, actually—is that when it comes to writing the sympathetic characters at the heart of a great story, you can bring all that stuff with you, and use it. In fact, in my opinion, you have to. Here’s why:
Stories ring with truth when they are cast with characters who are as multi-dimensional, complex—and therefore sympathetic (we are all the main character in our own personal story, after all)—as we are.
We love to cheer for protagonists we can identify with when we see that they are as flawed (hurting, broken, or fearful) as we are or struggling with some of the same challenges (acceptance, loss, addiction). Why? Because we can see ourselves in them. We see our own foibles, shortcomings, or desires in them… and then cheer for—and are inspired by—their success.
We even identify more with antagonists who have sympathetic qualities. (Though we may make them less sympathetic, perhaps, than our main characters, a conflicted antagonist makes for much a more complex story than a two-dimensional villain).
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From the first moment that editor friend Jeff Gerke (who had acquired my first two books, Demon: A Memoir and Havah: The Story of Eve) suggested I write the story of Judas, I was running fast and hard in the other direction. Entering the mind of the most vilified man in religious history was scarier, less savory and more alien to me than writing the plight of a fallen angel or the first woman on earth.
The thing that finally got me was the idea of slipping into the first-person skin of the only disciple Jesus called friend, of sitting down at the side of this mysterious healer, teacher and uncontrollable maverick called Jesus. As a longtime online role-player (I often say that everything I know about characterization I learned from my endless hours of role-playing), I wanted to see him for myself, to experience him in this way. And then something crazy happened.
About halfway in, while writing about Judas’ longing for acceptance, anxiety over outcomes and stymie at the agenda of God, I realized I was no longer writing his story, but my own.
I was the one who felt if others really knew me, they would not love me. I was the one who wanted God to hurry up and act in the ways I thought God should. I was the one who took despair into my own hands in the unhealthiest of ways.
I brought every disappointment, moment of darkest despair—and every hope, too—with me to those pages. A year later, Iscariot won ECPA book of the year in fiction.
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I write all of my novels with the working assumption that we aren’t that different. That many of the same fears, insecurities, hopes and dreams drive us, regardless of epoch. That we are all basically the same. It hurts us to see people suffer even as we struggle in our own desire for more. We have morals that drive us, even if they’re at times questionable. We love, if messily. We err in ways that sense to us at the time.
So how do we make our characters—including even crusty or surly protagonists—sympathetic? We get real, and vulnerable.
Try this: write out a list of your top five fears. No one will read it, share it with no one—this is Secret Stuff. Just write them out.
Next, write a list of your top five hopes.
How can you imbue your primary and secondary characters with at least one from each list? How do these relate to that character’s story goal?
If your main character’s biggest fear is not getting picked for a job or failing in a relationship, dig deeper. What’s behind that fear? Rejection? A lack of love? Get to that base-level fear (or hope—of love, redemption, or the realization of a dream) that we can all identify with.
Expert move: Do the exact same for your antagonist. Doing so will create a more complex conflict—in your story, and in your reader.
Now try this: speed write your answers to the following prompts:
· Three things you wish you were stronger or better at…
· A quality you wish you had…
· A question that haunts you…
· The thing that you most want in life…
· The times you feel most misunderstood…
· The first time you ever experienced betrayal…
· Three of your quirks…
· Your earliest memory of joy…
· The thing that brings you most pleasure in life…
· A time you experienced a triumph…
· One thing that always moves you to action…
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How can you share some of these triggers, quirks, hopes or hurts with your main character? How can you give him or her the quality you wish you had? Write one of them into a scene.
Do the same for your antagonist.
I remember my 14 year-old step-son asking me about King Solomon while I was writing The Legend of Sheba. “So is he a good guy or a bad guy?” he asked. “Both,” I said, which is true of the dichotomous wisest man in the world who made some really stupid decisions. And it’s true of all of us, too; we’re not just one thing or the other, good or bad. We’re both. And your characters need to be, too.
Try this: Speed write responses to the following prompts:
· A time you showed grace to another…
· A time you showed grace to yourself…
· The ugliest thought you’ve had about another…
· The ugliest thought you’ve had about yourself…
· A time you acted directly opposite your best intentions…
· A time you chose to act in a way you felt was right—at great cost to yourself…
· A time you thought you were doing the right thing, but realized later it was (or seemed to be) a mistake…
· Why the item above seemed like the right thing to do in those circumstances…
· A beautiful action you took that no one has ever known about…
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Now try this: Drawing from the list above, create dichotomies in your characters. Show your protagonist and your antagonist thinking charitable and ugly thoughts, making both good and bad, noble and ignoble decisions on their journey through your story. (But let the noble win with your protagonist.)
Do the same for your secondary characters.
By sharing the truth of our own fears, triumphs, hopes, failures and experiences—and our own vacillation between noble and ignoble actions—we accomplish several things:
· We are no longer attempting to manipulate the emotions of the reader, but merely reminding them of emotions already inside them—because we are all the same.
· The story is no longer about just how a character achieves their goal or why—which is the plot—but about the emotional stake we have in that success.
· The story has become personal.
I want to give a big shout out of love to you who are reading this post today. Blessings on you—not just for taking on the worthy endeavor of writing, but simply for who you are. Too often we come to the page with a half measure of courage, worried about our adequacy. You are enough. And when it comes to writing unforgettable characters, whatever you are feeling and wherever you are in life is perfect for the task before you, right now.
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Who are some of your favorite characters in fiction? What made them unforgettable—and what about them did you also see in yourself?
Leave a comment to get your name in a drawing for your choice of a signed hardback copy of Sheba, hardback copy of Iscariot, paperback copy of Havah or paperback copy of Demon. Two Winners today!
Tosca Lee is the award-winning, New York Times bestselling author of Demon: A Memoir, Havah: The Story of Eve, Iscariot, The Legend of Sheba, and the Books of Mortals series with New York Times bestselling author Ted Dekker. Her highly-anticipated new thriller, The Progeny, releases May 2016. To learn more about Tosca, please visit her website: www.toscalee.com.
Keep up with Tosca’s latest releases, adventures and midnight musings and receive three unpublished chapters from the original manuscripts of Iscariot and Havah: The Story of Eve: http://toscalee.us6.list-manage.com/subscribe?u=bcb8ae4f788e0b4eb1c054b58&id=2cb691f28d
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The ProgencyEmily Jacobs is the descendant of a serial killer. Now, she’s become the hunted.
She’s on a quest that will take her to the secret underground of Europe and the inner circles of three ancient orders—one determined to kill her, one devoted to keeping her alive, and one she must ultimately save.
Filled with adrenaline, romance, and reversals, The Progeny is the present-day saga of a 400-year-old war between the uncanny descendants of “Blood Countess” Elizabeth Bathory, the most prolific female serial killer of all time, and a secret society dedicated to erasing every one of her descendants. A story about the search for self filled with centuries-old intrigues against the backdrop of atrocity and hope.
Pre-order on Amazon: http://bit.ly/PreOrderTheProgeny
The Progeny on Goodreads: http://bit.ly/TheProgeny