Welcome Pat Bertram.
Like her real-life counterpart, a character’s story begins with a gleam in her parents’ eye and ends with her death. The story we tell is but a fraction of that life, and where we choose to begin and where we choose to end defines the story. If we begin with a crime and end with a resolution of that crime, we have a mystery. If we begin with a girl meeting a boy or a woman meeting a man and end with happily ever after, we have a romance. If we chronicle the rise and fall of the character’s fortunes, we could have a tragedy, a family drama, or any number of stories.
The illusion of story is such that, whatever the genre, by the end of the book readers know the character as well as they know themselves and their friends. Readers know, or think they know, everything in the character’s life that brought her to crisis, and readers know, or think they know, how everything in the character’s life will work out after the story problem is resolved. By giving readers the essence of the character, we give them the means to continue the story long after the book is closed.
How do we work this sleight of hand? By showing the character in action and in relationships. By defining the character through decisions in moments of crisis.
Light Bringer, my speculative fiction thriller, Helen comes home from working a double shift at the hospital to find a baby on her doorstep. She shows her nurturing characteristics by taking care of the child. She shows the beginning of a metamorphosis from staid nurse to loving mother by putting off calling the authorities so she can enjoy the child bit longer. But what really defines her is how she acts in a moment of crisis. The baby, a magical child, or at least a precocious one, tells her they have to leave, that her invisible playmate says they are after her (the baby) and when they find her, they will kill Helen. Helen doesn’t hesitate. She packs up her car and her life and escapes with the baby.
Helen’s decision is a defining moment. If you come to understand everything and everyone involved in such a moment, whether it is something that happens in your life or your character’s life, you will understand a greater truth. In the case of Light Bringer, Helen’s decision defines not only her own character, but also the character of the baby, the character of the invisible playmate, and perhaps even the story itself. It is through such defining moments that we can create a character so real readers believe they know more about the character than was ever written.
This is a discussion rather than a how-to since both experienced writers and writers with a feel for story automatically include defining moments. The main reason for an awareness of defining moments is it gives you a different way of looking at a character you’re having trouble bringing to life. Best of all, you never have to explain the moment, never even have to call it a defining moment. Just write it. Readers’ minds will do the rest because that’s where characters come alive -- in the imagination of readers.
Thank you Pat.
You can find Light Bringer on Amazon. And, in addition to all the places I listed at the beginning of this post, you can find Pat Bertram on her blog and her website.
I know some of you are going to ask if Pat’s “Helen” character is, in reality, me. The answer is no, although I am a “light bringer” since every morning the sun waits until I rise before it does. Kidding aside, I really liked Pat’s talk about the defining moment in each protagonist’s life. I can tell you exactly where my protagonist’s moment is in the book I’m working on now. Does your protagonist have a defining moment?