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.

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