Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Starting with trauma

Fun activity: outlining a new manuscript.
Problem: characterization – specifically, of the hero, Flecton Burwood.

I had a bit of a backstory for him. What I didn’t have was a good grasp of how he thought, what flaws he had, or what he liked about the heroine. Then I asked myself a question.

Hey, Marian, I said. If, from the ages of eight to thirteen, you lived in fear that your charming older cousin would secretly kill you, what would you be like now?

This was the most important part of Flecton’s backstory, by the way. When he was eight, his twelve-year-old cousin Leighton came to live in Burwood Hall. Flecton had two sisters, so he was happy to finally get what he thought would be a big brother.

Leighton was happy too. He wanted to be the master of Burwood Hall, and the only thing standing in his way was the heir.

The first accident killed one of Flecton’s sisters and put him on his guard, but Leighton was too clever and too patient to be caught. After the second accident and Flecton’s narrow escape, he accused Leighton, only to be punished by his parents for telling such horrible lies. This only ended when his father died (of natural causes) when Flecton was thirteen. He became the master of Burwood Hall, and Leighton lost no time in heading for the hills before anything could happen to him.

So getting back to my question, what would I be like if I were Flecton?

Cagey. I wouldn’t trust anyone easily. I’d sleep with a weapon in the room. I’d be over-prepared for danger. I would double-check doors to make certain they were locked.

I’d also have some less rational habits. Like having some kind of weird little ritual to remember the past or protect myself, something that really doesn’t make sense to an outsider or looks bizarre but which kept me more or less sane when I was a child.

I would find it difficult to enjoy life. I might have few qualms about listening to private conversations because hey, maybe that once saved my life when I was a kid. Also, because I didn’t know whether I would live out the day as a child, I’d be even more of a control freak than I currently am.

Suddenly I had a lot of material about Flecton. Plus, now I really want to give him a happy ending.

Starting with a major trauma and extrapolating how that might affect someone will only work for some characters, and they’ll need traits or habits that are not caused or influenced by the trauma, or else they’ll look pretty one-note. But it worked for Flecton, especially since the heroine is direct, well-balanced and can enjoy life.

Too bad he sees her making out with his cousin…


Writer Pat Newcombe said...

I certainly think that how a character reacts to a trauma or situation defines their character attributes a great deal! Come to think of it that's how it is for most of us - they do say it's not what life throws at you but how you choose to deal with it. Happy writing!

Marian Perera said...

Exactly - how the person reacts to whatever hurt or scarred them in the past will shape their characterization. And, of course, different people will react to the same event in different ways.

I should have added in my post that there's a good way to make sure the trauma doesn't define the character - reveal it later on. If the first thing we knew about Quint was his experience on the Indianapolis, he wouldn't have been the same as the tough, my-way-or-the-highway character first encountered in the film.

Happy writing to you too. :)