On a DragonCon panels not so long ago, I was asked a question that really made me think. (I love those!) “What three things do you absolutely have to know about your character to write him or her?”
My answer, as it turns out, wasn’t difficult to come up with: nature, nurture and the pivotal moments that divert life’s trajectory for good or ill. As for the first, all parents, aunts, uncles, etc. know that a child has a personality even before he or she is verbal—fussy, happy, tentative or trusting, demanding or easygoing, outgoing or shy. My son, for example, was a born extravert. He was flirting with girls by making eyes at them or simply grabbing their hands as if to declare “mine” from the time he was a babe in arms. Once he could walk, we called him “the ambassador” because whenever we were out in public, he’d make the rounds of people, making friends, learning names, telling life stories. (For instance, at the pool, “Hi, my name’s Ty. I’m five. My mother’s thirty-five.” This was just yesterday, of course. ) Definitely personality is one part innate, natural instead of learned. Then there’s the other side, nurture. People aren’t just a products of their parents, but also of their cultures—what’s reinforced or deemed unacceptable within their society, their religion, their institution, whatever. These things may or may not change who a person is on the inside. Instincts or inclinations might be sublimated or diverted or emphasized, depending on the person, but outward behavior at least is likely change. And not, of course, always to fit in with the norms, but sometimes in opposition to them. It’s a rare (and I want to way mythical) person who is not affected in any way by prejudice or perceptions. The cliché “no man is an island” got that way for a reason.
But the part I want to focus on are those pivotal and defining moments. There are any number of things that might change your life’s trajectory. Hitting traffic or finding out your refrigerator died or that the dog ate your homework will change the course of just a single hour or day. Those things happen all the time, but the bigger moments—unexpected windfalls, the death of a loved one, a traumatic accident, meeting someone who understands and accepts you for who you are and allows you to do the same for yourself…the list goes on and on. The thing here is that you need to know not just who your character is, but how he or she got that way. Your novel will be about these defining moments that divert life off the targeted path in the biggest ways possible. Some disaster, natural or unnatural, or antagonist bent on world domination, will obliterate the path the hero or heroine is on, and they have to forge a brand new trail through unexplored territory. It’s scary and it’s raw and it’s immediate…or it should be. THIS to me is the distillation of a novel. It’s about the points where everything changes in huge and unimaginable ways and the human element is how we deal with it.
BTW, the third of my Latter-Day Olympians novels, RISE OF THE BLOOD, came out in digital this month. I’d love it if you wanted to pick it up (or either of the earlier volumes, BAD BLOOD and CRAZY IN THE BLOOD). I promise, big things change for Tori in Book 3. I practice what I preach!