Characterization in Crisis Moments: Three Steps

Mar 19, 2010

In the last post, I talked about experiences that I know will make it into my writing. These are moments that were magical or had an effect on me in some way, ones that I have in my mind specifically as “I will write this one day.”

However, there’s another part of writing from experience, and it helps make your actual writing craft stronger. This is a process I use often, especially at moments of crisis. It’s something that can really help turn a high-impact scene into one that also furthers character development if you do it right.

Currently in POEL, my main character has just discovered a person she loves is in mortal peril and she has to save her. This is a scene that’s been written thousands of times, and has great potential to be exactly like all those other thousands of books. It’s a pivotal scene for her, however, because of how it affects her thoughts and actions going forward. How am I going to make this scene not just impactful, but the kind of scene it needs to be to shape my character?

For high-intensity and high-emotion scenes, I often use a three step process to create the scene. First, I determine what I need this scene to be. It needs to be emotional for my character, but not sentimental. I determine which emotions (based on who she is) she would feel. The moment also needs to be a sort of catalyst for changing my character because of how she’s affected by it, so I have to determine how she really is affected by it. Okay, sounds good. Now what?

Second, I think of a moment in my life that reflects this. Sometimes, depending on what I determined in step one, I’ll think of more than one. So, she’s facing the thought of someone she loves in danger. I felt that when I learned my brother had been in a horrible accident (that he luckily walked away from). I relive the moment, writing down my feelings, how my body reacted, what my thoughts and actions were. Then I think of a moment in my life that was a catalyst for change, and do the same thing. It’s important to remember, you don’t have to have the same exact experience your character does in order to use it! What if you’ve never faced a moment where someone you loved was in danger? Think of another experience that might mirror that of your characters– one that created the emotions, thoughts, or results you want to portray.

Me- Not in the Story!

Now that I’ve got all that good stuff down, I’m onto the third step. I just determined how I felt and acted in a situation like that. There’s only one problem. I am not my character! So now I think about who my character is. How would she react? Would she bite her lip like I did? Would she be praying for the family member? Would she process the emotion like I did, or would she block it, and jump into action immediately? I use my own experience for reference only. I figure it all out, and often write it down. This is the MOST IMPORTANT STEP! The point of all this is to use your experience to get a feel for the situation, but if you put yourself into your story, you just failed. To really make a climactic point like this work, you have to stay true to your character, or the scene is a total bust.

Now, I don’t always use this process. Sometimes, I’m in the groove, I’m in my character’s head, and my fingers are flying. The scene still turns out great! Also, keep in mind that this isn’t a way to OUTLINE the scene. This is a way to FEEL the scene and your character so you can write it better, and hopefully make it more real for your character (and therefore your readers). You still have to focus on plot elements, dialogue, action, description, and all that other wonderful stuff that makes up a scene.

Give it a try! If it works for you, use it! If not, no worries. This is just one technique of many that happens to work for me.


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