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Sunday, September 3, 2017


by Doris McCraw (c)

You may wonder about the title of this post. I chose Badge of Pain or What Drives Our Character as the focus for this month. 

As some of you know, I come from the performing arts. I have spent years honing characters that playwrights created. I even spent six plus years teaching others the craft. The one thing an actor does is find out what makes their character 'bleed'. Not just the simple, 'mom didn't like me so...', but the deep down root of everything. It ain't always easy, but once you find it, the character you're playing comes alive. One acting coach whose concepts I've used to some degree when I am writing and performing is Ivana Chubbuck . For those who would like to hear her, here it a link to a video on her process.  Or you can read her book, "The Power of the Actor".

I've also been working through Donald Maass's book "The Emotional Craft of Fiction". He also asked you to go deeper. Not just the obvious,  but take it down to the lowest level. If you start with anger, go deeper. What would be next? Frustration, embarrassment, fear, hurt. 

Characters have that one thing that keeps them from achieving their goal. Not just the outer world of conflict, but the inner world of pain. In my first novella, my main characters had pain that kept them from loving each other. It was the 'badge' they carried like a shield to keep them from taking the step to happiness. 

Each character, if you look deep enough, carries that load, and it weighs heavy on them. At the same time, to let go means they become vulnerable, they can get hurt. They would be trading a known pain for the possibility of another pain. We all do it ourselves to some degree.

So as we take our character's journey when writing, here are some tips.

1. Slow down and let yourself and readers get to know your character. Sometimes you need to take the time to really put the important scene out there, to take the time to highlight important details and actions. Not every scene, but the important ones that the reader can relate to.

2. Use body language, not just facial expressions, to convey what is going on with your character. If they are getting ready to tell someone the truth of their pain, what would they do? Would they pace, look out the window, avoid eye contact, turn their back?

3. Create tension, tease your reader, use words that draw the reader into caring. Are they going to fess up to their pain, move past it and find happiness? What happens if the don't? Dig deep, find the source of the pain and open that wound.

4. What is the moral compass of you character? How does it fit in with the pain they carry. Don't be afraid to delve into that. It adds to the depth the reader invests in the outcome. You want them to cheer for the good guy. Even the villains have a moral compass, at least most do. If you've ever read Dean Koontz's "The Watchers" you will know what I mean. Even the 'monster' brought a tear to my eye.

I leave you with a quote from Franz Kafka "A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us". Just like the actor who allows the watcher to feel emotions while remaining safe, so too can the author allow the reader to experience the pain without living through it themselves. 

Doris Gardner-McCraw -also writing as Angela Raines
Author, Speaker, Historian-specializing in
Colorado and Women's History

For a list of Angela Raines Books: Here 

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  1. Wow, what an excellent article, and a good reminder that every scene needs to advance the character arc. You're a rock star!

    1. Thank you Jacquie, that is high praise indeed. I realized some of the things I do naturally because of the performing I should share. Glad you liked it. Doris

  2. Dori, I really related to this post of yours! Every one of my heroes is in some kind of terrible emotional pain--many times, the heroine doesn't know, or even when she does, she may not comprehend the depth of what has happened to him. As time goes by, she slowly understands and this strengthens the bond between them--because he has gotten so used to it, that for someone else to actually care and understand him is something he had never bargained for.

    I always try to make my villains somehow "relatable" too, like you were talking about. I've had many readers comment on that. You're right--they have to be multi-dimensional too, not just a cardboard cut-out "bad guy" who is mean.

    Food for thought. Thanks for this!

    1. Thank you Cheryl. I know that your character's pain is one of the reasons I have always loved your work. I believe the more 'real' we make our characters, the more the reader wants to cheer for them.

      I am glad you like the post. It is something I work to add to my storytelling. I want to add to the readers involvement and make them feel. Doris

  3. Very thoughtful and informative post, Doris. I read through your list and found several of your suggestions I already employ, but a few more that I can use to broaden and enhance my characters. And, I will be the first to say, I don't enjoy reading about bad guys who perform horrible acts just for the sake of doing so. I like to know there is a reason why they turned down the path they did, even if I don't agree with the reason. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thank you. As I take this journey of authorship, I am always trying to figure out what makes my characters tick. I know it's due to my performing and educational background. Still, I want to share. I'm glad that others can use what I learn. Doris

  4. Dori,

    Your article reminded me that two of my favorite literary characters are generally considered to be villains: Hannibal Lecter and Inspector Javert. While I was drawn to the psychological aspects of what made them tick, when I finally found out about their "badges of pain", the author had me rooting for them from that point on.

    Thank you for the reminder that to create well-rounded characters, we must keep pulling back the layers until we expose the humanness that lies within.

    1. I'm glad this post helped jog the memory. As a performer it was second nature to start peeling that onion, but I have to keep reminding myself to do it when I write. Sometimes I get so caught up in the 'story line' I gloss over the deeper things.

      Christopher Lee once said "There is a dark side in all of us. And for us 'bad' people, the bad side dominates. I think there is a great sadness in villains, and I have tried to put that across. We cannot stop ourselves doing what we are doing." I think he was on to something. Doris

  5. I loved your article and can thoroughly relate. Thank you for sharing your article with us.

    One of the most rewarding moments in my writing has come when I, the writer, am surprised by a character's moment of truth and think "where did that come from"? It's happened several times and is blurted out in an intense but quiet moment between two people and it's a deep, painful history I didn't know about her/him. I sit stunned, staring at the screen. That's when writing is truly magical.

    1. It does make your heart sing when that happens Elisabeth. I can just see you writing and having it happen. Thank you. I truly am pleased you found this useful. Doris