Changing the Plot of Your Life, Part I – The Villains and Character Development

So, as I mentioned in an earlier post, I found myself with 55,000 words about a character named Jane. I wanted to write a novel and the light had started to dawn on me that this writing thing was pretty therapeutic and one of the cheaper “hobbies” I have ever taken up. I started to read books on writing (some of them are listed in the “What I’m Reading” page). And, I started on this quest to round out what I was writing by using actual techniques around plot, scenes and structure. And then, because I went on this writing improvement quest, I found a new way to question and examine my life.

For me, these things are often accidental. I have Twitter because I use it as my informal life coach, I read @zen_habits, @PemaQuotes, @Buddhism_Now, @PeaceDay among others, and every day, someone tweets something that just stops me in my tracks. But that was nothing to the realization that the writing that had come out of me so fast showed a lot about the distance that I still needed to travel.

So, I thought, if you want to reach a sense of peace and serenity, maybe it’s time to change the plot of your life.

First, how do you feel about the plot of your life?

I would have answered this question with “okay.” But I found this whole layer of cranky, unaddressed anger that I did not want to have inside me. I found it because I could see it more clearly through the writing process, as I worked parts of my life in a novel, thinly hidden by a different set of character names. If I work hard, it may make good reading someday, but its higher value is in indicating what I needed to address personally.

If you review your life’s plot, are there are lots of villains?

If you smiled at the word villain, you might be okay! I think accepting that you still have work to do is the important first step but I realized that there was a disconnect between looking backward and looking forward in my life, like there was a fault line and today I can forgive and move on but looking backwards, I still did not understand the characters in my past and could only approach them by thinking about what they did or did not do for me. So, I was staring at a bunch of pages of me, me, me. Again, that might be what you want when you create a character but to create a complete character, or to be more complete as a person, there should be more gray and more awareness of the challenges other people faced. My various writing coaches were telling me that central characters need to be credible and flawed, they need a quest and it needs to be one that the readers can lose themselves in and hopefully learn something about themselves as they read.

So what did I do? Well, one of the writing exercises actually used the word “cardboard” in relation to characters so I thought I would ask myself about that question.

If this were a novel, would your villains be cardboard?

This is where I found myself. I wrote reams and it was a good exercise but I needed to round out my characters. Various writing books suggest character sketches and that’s what I tried. When I read my writing, I did not see much insight into the motivations and reasons behind what the bad people were doing in my writing. This might be good for a murder mystery, but I was working on a character-driven piece. So, I picked a set of characters that were the villains and I started to write their memoir, short ones of course, taking what I knew about these characters, and then, filling in what happened in the years before I met them and, crucially, really focusing on how they got to the place that I found them when we met.

And it really worked. I could create 500 words a night after my day job and I was being forced to think about others instead of myself and I was learning a technique for rounding out characters that I wanted to include in my story.

Next time, I will share the steps I took to write characters and how to use backstory and character sketch to think about the villains in your book.


To Outline or Not to Outline

As someone who did not formally study writing, I figured out just recently that there is a raging debate about whether you should outline a book before you write it. Some folks feel that outlines are critical and others feel that it gets in the way of their creative process. I would be exaggerating if I said that I had a creative process, but I did wake up after a few months with 55,000 words on paper sort of organized into chapters.

In some cases, there were nice turns of phrase and some good descriptions but it was obvious that I would need help to complete, polish and fill out what I was writing. So, when I found K.M Weiland’s book, Outlining Your Novel, (visit her website), it came at a good time.

As I mused over her ideas and helpful text, I was really stopped by both the “what if” question and the chapter on backstory and character sketches. I took lots of notes.

But soon, I thought I needed some structure and plot and moved on to other books.

Then, I got stuck. The more I read about writing and the elements of a novel, the more I felt like I hadn’t really done anything. Somewhat out of desperation, I sat down one night and started to write a character sketch using Weiland’s hints and suggestions. And, suddenly it worked.

Anne Lamott has written that she just writes and that makes her writer. I sense that she isn’t as formal as Weiland about outlining but what I did was just write, but as a backstory and character sketch. The next thing I knew, I had five character sketches and almost another 10,000 words of possibly useful material and another important thing, the epiphany that lead me to consider writing as an essential life-changing event.


Because the story I was imagining was part of my own life and it became a powerful way to revisit some scary stuff and fill in gaps that I needed to fill in to find some balance.

So, I did not solve the “to outline or not to outline” debate, but I found that the great ideas of at least two writers helped me to another goal.

I very much enjoyed this post and as someone who needed to think hard about letting go of things, I liked the trade-off she so perceptively outlines. If only I had thought about it that way sooner!!

write meg!

Nothing beats seeing London for the first time.

Except maybe seeing it the second time.

The first came during a family vacation in 2007. Fresh from my college graduation and still bearing that the-world-is-my-oyster glow, my parents, sister and I hopped on a plane across the Atlantic. It was my first truly international experience. (Sorry, Canada; you’re our lovely northern neighbor, but I don’t count Toronto. Plus, you’re all so nice and I didn’t experience any culture shock. So.)

Arriving at Gatwick Airport around 6 a.m. local time, we immediately experienced the joy of being barked at in a British accent, having to throw ourselves on a busy commuter train and the shock of seeing a woman’s unclothed torso in a city newspaper — but it was no matter. I was too distracted by the “Mary Poppins”-esque buildings sailing past our windows to care much. The sunrise was just beginning…

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Okay, Maybe Revenge is a Strong Word…

I should, perhaps, be more careful with my words. When I said last time that I called my writing revenge, let’s just say it was like when you go to a high school reunion and you hope that the boy who picked on you has gone bald. But, really, if you are thinking those kinds of thoughts and writing that way, it isn’t entirely good for your karmic equation or any type of healing you are hoping for.

Ever the student, I read some excellent books on writing that focused on scene structure, description and outlining. The outlining book was particularly helpful because it asked me to consider each character’s motivation. So, while I used the skeleton of my life and things that happened to me, the outlining ideas forced me to consider what each of the character’s thoughts could have been and even what their life might have been like before I was born.

And, right there, right in that moment, when I could see the similarities between my life and what theirs could have been, something changed. And, then, wonder of wonders, it was like those Zen quotes, those Buddhist blogs and those New Age books. I was calm again. Because the process of trying to write good fiction had tricked me into considering the other guy’s plight and maybe even teased some empathy out of me. It was like sanding off some sharp edges in my memories. They were still sad but they could be viewed with an objectivity that is, for me, part of forgiveness.

So, like I said, maybe revenge was a strong word, but there was no doubt that when I started, my thoughts were not constructive and they certainly did not lead to an improved me.

Then again, maybe that is exactly the journey I am supposed to have.

Planting a Flag

At first, I started to write what I have called revenge. I am not proud but there is no doubt that the writing came out of me fast and furious, pages and pages. What I discovered was that the more I wrote the less I felt like revenge and the more I wanted to use writing as a tool to improve myself. So, the writing that would have been a blistering novel of the journey of a character through tough times became a way to confront the unfinished in myself.

Along the way, I found many bloggers who commented on their lives, their efforts to improve their writing and to improve who they were as people. This was a profound moment for me and I am very thankful for their generosity in commenting on their craft and their quest to improve their lives by choosing a career, really a vocation, that suited the people they wanted to be.

So, now I am planting a flag to get started on my own quest, which combines writing and self-improvement, using the tool of fiction to reflect, understand, forgive and improve. Thanks for reading.