Defining Moments


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!


5 comments to Defining Moments

  • […] I’m up today on Magical Words talking about characterization and defining moments.  Hope you’ll stop on […]

  • Lucienne, that was a great question. And a hard one. When I start with a character, they are often a closed door and all I have is single key. By the end of the first book I know a lot more, of course, but when I start … not mucha nothin’.

    I remember what I had for Thorn St. Croix when I first thought of her, and the path the phrase led me on. “A Rose by any other Name will still draw Blood.”
    That key gave me twins, polar opposites.
    And one was dead.
    And the other was in hiding, trying to stay alive.
    Bloodied but alive.
    And her name was Thorn.
    I remember it like a flower opening to me, one petal at a time.
    Thanks for this. Hmmm. Now I want to write a Thorn book.

  • sagablessed

    Lucienne, I remember you saying something like this before at MarCon, and I have kept it to heart. But this is much more in depth. So when I write a character, I try to find out if it is nature or nurture. Sometimes it is both. Sometimes the answer just happens.
    As I wrote my curretn MC, his abusive mother just got written in. Was not what I thought was coming, but it just popped out.

    Hmmm. Faith, we are similar in this. When I started current WIP, it was based on an exercise a contributor posted here.(I think Misty).But my brain said, “well, what if he does not save his sister?”
    I also had to look up the OE word for darling. Did you know it originally in OE/AS was an epithet? My brain went ‘click’, so, he became something different than what I had planned.

  • Razziecat

    Those defining moments are usually what brings a character to me in the first place. I get this glimpse of a person in the midst of crisis, or sometimes in the aftermath, and I want to know more: What happened? How did it shape this person’s life? How are they dealing with it–denial, acceptance, avoidance? How does it affect the way they interact with the world and with other people? It’s a long journey to find all this out, and sometimes the character fights me every step of the way 😉

  • In my WIP, I’m trying to use those defining moments to show the main character’s battle between nature and nurture. She was raised to kill, but she is coming to realize that’s not who she really is. I’ve been struggling a bit with how “nurture” she can overcome.