on character and shame

This is a short blog today, because I wrote ‘the end’ on the final draft of the book (and turned it in so I would quit tweaking the damned thing)… and it occurred to me that a lot of what I do in a final draft is to go through each character and make sure they are articulated on the page clearly, that their motivations track across the story, that their actions are both in sync with their goals but that they also are contradictory beings, as humans are. Strong character development is to me the Holy Grail–I enjoy a thousand different things about writing and reading, everything from high concept to literary–if the characters are interesting.

Interesting characters. Now there’s the subject of entire workshops–lots of how-tos (inner goal, outer goal, background, mannerisms, style, voice, etc.) Tons of good advice out there. When I was in a screenwriting course, my teacher had us do an exercise which crystallized character for me in a way that I hadn’t experienced with any other exercise, and I use the concept to this day: what is your character ashamed of? Nothing quite gets to the core of a person like shame will, because it’ll tell several things: where they failed, what they valued, if they’re continuing to fail, what they learned, and if it broke them. True character=choices under pressure. The choice your character makes at their worst moment is who they are, really, even if they manage to lie to themselves most of the rest of the time.

Our assignment was to write two pages which showed the shameful action, showed how the character both chose that action and felt about it… without explaining that they were ashamed. No telling, just showing. It was probably the most difficult two pages I ever wrote, but I learned more about showing character in that one exercise than in the rest of the entire degree coursework.

So, if you’re a writer, what sort of questions to you ask yourself in order to hone your characters? Do you have any exercises you do, or lists, or what?

And for everyone: memorable characters you wish you would have written or could meet?

8 thoughts on “on character and shame

  1. billie

    Toni, what a wonderful exercise. In each of my novels, there is a scene which reveals this for the main character(s) but I don’t think I consciously thought it through for the minors.

    It’s so appealing I’m sitting here doing it inside my head right this moment!

    I always think of a character’s childhood and how they view the family of origin – whether or not any of that is in the book, it tells me a lot about motivation and how they operate in relationship to other characters.

    I also think of the issue of innocence – has the character lost it, and if so, when and how?

    And of course the old standby question – what’s at stake for the character between the pages of the novel? I used to think I had to know that on page one, but I’ve discovered that I often don’t truly know until I get to the end, and then when I go back to edit, realize I knew it on a deeper level all along – but often it needs tweaking.

    Which brings me to what seems lately like the hardest question – how much (or little) does the character grow?

    It’s different in different books, obviously, but I find it difficult b/c most of mine take place in a relatively brief span of time. It’s unrealistic for the characters to make huge leaps forward and yet it’s possibly less satisfying for the reader if they don’t.

    I know this is an even more complex question for those who write series.

    Lots to think about. Which is why I love your exercise – it takes all the thought and makes it very concrete. Thanks for the gem!

  2. JT Ellison

    Great exercise, Toni. I do that one as well. It also let’s me decide just how much info I want to give about my characters over the course of the novel, and of the series.

    I also try to make sure every character, tertiary or secondary, has one distinguishing feature. It may or may not appear on the page, but it helps me know them better.

  3. pari

    Toni,I hadn’t heard of this exercise and it’s a real beauty. Thank you.

    I do what J.T. and Billie have mentioned, but I also sit down with my main characters and have a conversation . . . literally.

    With a pad of paper and pen in hand, I interview them. I ask why they do particular things, what they like and hate, about their childhoods and their joys and sorrows. Every time I do this, it’s different.

    I also use this technique when I don’t understand the movitations of a particular character — important or minor — and usually get extremely useful answers that inform how that character is written in the final draft.

    Again, thank you.

  4. Louise Ure

    Great exercise, Toni. I’m at the rewrite stage today, and will look at each scene with that in mind.

    I guess the way I’ve always phrased it in my head is “What’s the most important thing he’s ever lost?”

  5. Stacey Cochran

    I’m going to be submitting a novel to the St. Martin’s Press Crime Fiction Contest. I have no idea whether it’s worth the paper it’s printed on. I’ve given up trying to figure out what I need to do to write a novel that will sell.

    But Toni and Louise, you made me think about what I’ve done.

    The protagonist starts the novel moving back to his hometown with his wife after she’s miscarried twice and had their six-year-old daughter killed by a car in front of their home.

    So, he’s lost the most important thing that he could possibly lose.

    But here’s where the shame enters in. He’s a psychologist who studies aggressive driving.

    So, in spite of the fact that he’s spent 15 years studying every facet of this condition, he couldn’t prevent his own daughter from being killed in front of their house.

    Shame is not quite the right word. In this guy’s case, it’s something bordering on suicide and self-loathing.

    And yet, he’s fighting to find joy in the simple things of life. To recover and move forward because he’s fairly young.

    Enter in a serial killer obsessed with his work, an abduction of his wife (who is three months pregnant), and you’ve got my novel.

    I’ve decided to title it simply the protagonist’s name: Roman Phoenix.

  6. toni mcgee causey

    Billie, so glad it works for you. I felt the same way when I first heard it–it was such a simple set of instructions, and suddenly opened up a way of looking at character for me.

    J.T., good point about the distinguishing feature–I think it’s critical to give readers something to hang onto, image-wise.

    Pari, I do that… but I have to make sure no one’s around, or they try to have me committed.

    Louise, I think losing something is also a critical component that makes up who we are–what we had, what we valued and why, and then why it’s gone–are fundamental to who we become. I think the thing about the shame one that framed it a little differently for me is that it’s the choice–there’s no shame, for example, in losing someone to cancer, though the loss may be significant and life-changing. But losing someone to drunk driving when it’s your fault, horrific. Or condoning someone drinking because it makes them easier to get along with when they’re drunk. (just riffing here)

    Stacey, I think you’re right about it being a great loss–and incredibly motivating. I also agree, it’s not quite shame, but your character’s losses are significant to who he becomes and why.

    Sorry to have been gone all day–unexpected.

  7. Allison Brennan

    Congratulations on finishing your revisions! Woo hoo! I finished mine at 11 last night. Whew.

    Your exercise sounds fascinating, but I don’t do exercises very well. I guess I should work on them because I would learn something.


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