Long time ago a writing teacher told me the best way to unlock a character is to ask three questions: What’s your secret? What’s your real secret? What’s your real secret? With each answer you go a little deeper. This is the way into the heart of your characters, the way to make them show up breathing on the page.
Another thing, just discovered today, ask yourself, your writer self, Where are you reluctant to go with this story? What do you plan to gloss over as you write this? What secrets are you keeping from your characters? I have been asking myself these questions for weeks. This book of my heart is going to break my heart. And it should. I want it to. So, I’m going there. I’m putting things on the page that I never planned to bring to light. Important things. Shameful, hurtful, awful things.
And that’s good. Today was the break-through in terms of finding a way to develop a character and enhance the theme of my WIP.
Maybe some of you know that I was once a divorced mom of two little boys. Most of my good friends are not writers, and they don’t read my blog (just guessing here, I know a few of you do!) but what my good friends will tell you is that I carried so much guilt for so long after my divorce. For years, I spoke of almost nothing else when I got together with them. And while the frequency tapered off, I was never fully able to forgive myself for splitting up my family.
When I did it, I was a stupid 26 year old who had no idea she was breaking her little boys’ hearts. I told myself it would be fine, we’d have joint custody, we were modern, blended, cool. Ha. That was not my experience. Not cool. Not blended. Not healed. We went through all the motions: sightings at recitals, graduations, weddings. We were polite. But we did not heal; I did not heal.
I wanted to write about the struggles of blending families and how nobody should ever kid themselves that divorce is “for the best” or “fine in this day and age.” I’ve been married to Al, my current husband, for 28 years. I was married to my children’s father for 7. One reason I stayed married to Al was because I was not going to put my children through another divorce. I wanted to walk away so many times in those early days. But I didn’t. And now I’m so glad I stayed. Mature love is a sweet gift.
I’ve wondered, and gone through it aloud with friends, since I stayed with Al, should I have stayed with my children’s dad? Were we just having a rough patch? We saw three counselors and waited two years to finally split. I tried. He did too. It just wasn’t right. Not for us. But this idea that I should have rode out the tough times continued to haunt me and my friends continued to listen to me beat myself up about the divorce until this year, when I finally got it. It’s like being in an airplane when the masks fall down. You put your own air mask on before your child’s. I was saving myself and since then have been trying to save the boys. Who turned out pretty great, btw.
So how to write about this without exploiting anyone? Obviously, the ex had to be completely different from my real ex. The kids needed to be different, too. As well as the hero and heroine. Where I was stuck was with the ex. Everybody else came to the table ready to tell this story. But the ex was recalcitrant. He was stubborn. He refused to move on the page. He wasn’t true. And I don’t mean true in the sense of “really happened” but true for this story.
I knew I was blocked because I respect my ex-husband so very much. I didn’t want to make him a bad guy, which would be your obvious choice in a romance. I just thought that road was too easy and a little bit mean. Today, the ex finally spoke to me, in his own words, telling his own story. This is the day I have been waiting for without really knowing what the search was about. I’d been keeping secrets about my character, even from myself. Glad he finally got me to pick up the pen so he could have a go at giving me all his angels and demons.
Sometimes, it’s not about the characters and their secrets. Sometimes it’s about the writer and her secrets.