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Draw on personal pain to write believable characters

I started reading a new paranormal novel last month that I had high hopes for based on how quickly and easily the first few chapters hooked me. The plot was refreshing, unique, and action-filled from the beginning. Interesting, quirky characters reeled me in. But it quickly went downhill from there.

I’m the type of reader who usually doesn’t give up on a book. I always have faith that the author will pull out of the temporary bog and finish, if not strong, at least well. I have only given up on two books in my life. My new paranormal novel was the third.

What went wrong?

One-dimensional characters with incredible angst that never moved beyond pining for one another and feeling that only the other could save them from their personal traumas. Each chapter became a sickly-sweet quicksand of emotional molasses. Yuck.

I was left feeling that the author may have experienced pain in her own life but maybe had never done the hard inner work of healing or moving beyond it. It’s like her characters were stuck in this same painful place with no escape.

We want our characters to feel so authentic that our readers experience them as real people. They can feel our characters’ joy, sadness, happiness, grief, and anger. When I read I book, I want to become totally lost in the story and the characters.

But how do we get this across on the page? One way is to use our own pain and emotions to develop our characters.

Caitlin, the protagonist in my fantasy novel, lost her mother when she was 10 years old, and she blames herself for her mother’s death. My story occurs 14 years later, but she still has residual grief and emotions that she never dealt with when she was younger.

I can use my own experience with grief as a barometer for my character. While writing this post, I set a timer for 10 minutes and wrote a series of questions to help flesh out my character’s grief—I won’t put all this in the story—I’m only using these questions to help discover who she is and how her grief has shaped her.

  • How did she handle the original grief when she was 10?
  • Did her grandparents bring her to a counselor?
  • Did she talk about it?
  • Did her father talk about it? Or did he go into hiding? Is she angry at him?
  • How did she feel? List all the emotions she felt.
  • Did she feel anger?
  • Did she blame herself or others?
  • Was she mad at God?
  • How has it affected her relationship with God? With others?
  • Does she shield herself from others?
  • Has she built a life that doesn’t allow room for others because she’s afraid of having her heart broken again?
  • Does she limit intimate relationships because she’s afraid people will leave her?
  • How much joy and love and happiness is she missing out on because she has hidden her heart away?
  • Does fear rule her life?
  • How has this affected her ability to use her natural healing power?
  • Is she afraid to use her powers and why?
  • Does she feel obligated to use them?
  • Does it feel like too much responsibility?
  • What is her personality like? What is her dominant public personality? Is this her real self? What is she hiding?
  • Is she sarcastic as a way to keep people at bay?
  • Can she learn to overcome her sarcasm and let others into her heart?
  • How can this happen? What happens to show her that she can risk trusting others?
  • Someone in the novel will die during the course of the story—how does she react? What physical, visceral responses does she have to the death? Does she feel responsible? Does it trigger her previous grief? List all her feelings around this death.
  • How can she recover from the grief? Does she actively try to heal herself? Does she bury and deny the grief again?
  • Show her growth as a character through how she handles new grief?
  • Draw out a grief character arc.
  • What are her dominant emotions? Is she balanced or do certain emotions play out above others?
  • Having experienced grief, can she use it to become more “alive” or more aware of the preciousness of each moment of her life? Can this be a realization she comes to by the end of the story? Triumph over tragedy?
  • How to show this without telling or being heavy-handed? A simple gesture or action affirming her new sensibilities? (Something that she would have denied or not have done at the beginning of the story).

I could probably set a timer for another 10 minutes and create another list with just as many questions. And I may not even answer all these questions because as I was writing them, many of my own questions about who my character is were answered and I gained a better feeling for her. I understand her motivations better and what drives her to make certain decisions in her life.

How did I come up with all these questions? I used my own experience with grief and the healing work I have done around this subject as a way to dive deep into my character’s grief—keeping in mind that she is not me and that her grief will be different than mine. Despite this, I can still use my own grief to discover who she is.

Whatever strong emotions you have experienced in your life—whether it’s grief, heartbreak, fear, happiness, joy, bliss, rage, despair—you can use them to help make your characters more real, authentic, and believable.

Below are two links with more suggestions for using grief or other painful emotions to make your characters more believable:

How to Handle Grief in Your Novel by Paige Duke

The Psychology of Writing: Character Development using the 5 stages of Grief by Casey Lynn Covel

Writing Exercise:

Choose one emotionally-charged event that has happened in your character’s life before the story starts. Set a timer for 10 minutes. Make a list of questions around this event that can help you discover more about your character and his or her motivations. Start with the question: How did this event make your character FEEL at the time?

Have you experienced a similar emotion? If so, set a timer for five minutes and make a list of what you felt, how you dealt with it, and how it makes you feel today. Dig deep. Doing our own inner healing work is often painful but think of all the benefits–not just to your personal life–but also to your writing and your reader.

If you’d like to read more about my grief journey and healing, please visit my website.

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