Once again, I’m sharpening my writing skills with the exercises from Writing Excuses’s year-long writing course. This week was their last episode on character. The episode was a Q&A, and covered such interesting topics as how to work with character flaws and how to write characters with offensive views without alienating your readers – it’s well worth a listen.
This episode’s writing exercise builds on the previous two, which used a scene of a dead-drop to illustrate character. It also provides a bridge from discussing character to developing story structure:
Sketch out the events before and after your dead-drop scene from last week and three weeks ago.
In doing this exercise, I’m also going to think about how those events expand on the central characters in this fantasy western – Sarah, an escaped slave; Marcus, her Underground Railroad contact; and the local sheriff, our antagonist.
Before the Dead-Drop
Sarah’s pre-dead-drop narrative is the one that comes closest to writing itself. She escaped from the plantation where she was held, with the help of a man named Seneca, who also gave her instructions for contacting the Underground Railroad. This sets up the dead-drop.
To show more about her character, and how she copes on her own, I also want to add in a scene where she’s almost caught the night before the dead-drop. Sarah’s smart, but because of what she’s suffered in slavery she’s also timid and lacks self-confidence. Her response to being pursued isn’t to run or fight back, but to curl up and hide in a ditch. She uses her smarts to hide pretty well, covering herself in stinking mud to try to hide her smell from the sheriff’s dogs, but they almost find her. Fortunately for her, she doesn’t know that she has some magical power (I’ll work out how later) using the system of magic through games I’m using in this setting. The simple prayer she frantically mutters in the ditch is also a rhyme from a childhood game and taps into that magic, and that’s enough to send the dogs and sheriff in another direction.
So in one scene I’ve shown her character, foreshadowed a character arc of learning magic, and had a chance to characterise the sheriff through his dogged and foul mouthed pursuit of escaped slaves, as well as how he interacts with the other pursuers as they close in on Sarah – he’s jovial with those he likes, but vicious towards others.
Meanwhile, Marcus is meeting to plan for Underground Railroad activities. I’d have to do research to write the planning, but what I’m mostly concerned with right now is characterisation and plot driven by the characters. The meeting is a way to show the magic of the setting. Marcus himself can’t use the magic, but is a leader who has magic users working for him. Like so many Railroad activities, their use of magic has to be subtle and low key, and though he works within these limitations it frustrates Marcus. He’d like nothing more than to be part of a full-on uprising against the slave owners of the southern states.
Though he’s not present in Marcus’s scene, the spectre of the sheriff hangs over all their decisions. They know that he’s looking for proof of their activities with growing ruthlessness. They recently lost a friend to him. Like so much else, not being able to punish the sheriff frustrates Marcus.
After the Dead-Drop
Now I get to bring Sarah and Marcus together. As they seem to be my central characters, I want to make things more interesting by developing a conflict between them, one that stems from their personalities.
Having received the note at the dead-drop, Marcus finds Sarah and takes her to a safe house. Waiting there, Sarah players chequers with Meredith Brown, one of the magic users from the dead-drop scene. In doing this, she inadvertently displays magical power, and Meredith realises that Sarah could be a huge asset for the local Underground Railroad. She tells Marcus, who obviously wants Sarah to stay – his whole motive is to grow resistance against slavery.
But Sarah’s scared, and she just wants to run away north to freedom. This leads to an argument with Marcus, who’s frustrated at her not wanting to help, and doesn’t understand why she wouldn’t. Because of her subservient, non-confrontational personality, Sarah backs down. But now she sees this potential ally as another bullying enemy, and is thinking about how to escape him.
Then news arrives that Old Sam, the other local Underground Railroad magic user, has been lynched. This ups the tension and creates an opportunity to show how the characters present react to this – Marcus with anger, Meredith with sorrow, Sarah with fear. We also get to hear about the sheriff’s reaction, which reveals more about his character. He’s furious, and now hunting the perpetrators of the lynching. Because while he might be a racist villain and antagonist of the story, there’s more to him than that. He really hates law-breakers.
On this issue at least, all the characters will be on the same side.
Reflecting on the Exercise
A lot of what I put into the characters wasn’t planned in advance, it emerged through outlining these few scenes, and I’m really pleased with the results. I think it’s a good illustration of what Robert McKee says in his excellent book Story – that plot and character aren’t really separate things, at least when they’re done right. Characters drive the plot, and the plot helps to show the characters.
Take the argument between Marcus and Sarah. That didn’t occur to me when I was developing their characters in the scenes before the dead-drop, but it made perfect sense based on those personalities. It adds a whole new plot strand, a conflict between them over Sarah’s fate, and it’s one that’s all about these characters and what motivates them.
Often, putting your character in a situation is a good way to develop them. I’m pleased with where these characters are heading.
If you’ve got any thoughts on the exercise, or had a go at it yourself and feel like sharing the results, then please leave a comment below. Next week, on to plot structure.