Monday, November 2, 2009

You tell me: What do you know to be true?

In my internet wanderings, I recently came across the blog White Hot Truth. While I don't know its author, writer/entrepreneur/ creative-type Danielle La Porte, I was quite taken with some of her thoughts and reflections. In fact, I'll go off on a tangent here before I even really start, to share a fantastic quote from one of her posts: "Everybody is amazing at something...and your genius is a cousin to your joy." I think she's totally right, on both counts!

But what set off my editor-radar most especially as I prowled through Danielle's blog were two of the "burning questions" that she commonly asks in one form or another, when she interviews her fellow outside-the-box-types (like nonconformists or financial visionaries).

The first: What do you know to be true, unquestionably beyond doubt, certain with every cell of your being, completely, passionately, righteously certain?

And the second: What was the dumbest thing that you used to believe?

One of my first thoughts upon reading these questions was how very much I'd love to pose these same questions to book characters (and their respective writers). Because I think that for a character to feel truly real, the writer has to know--and the reader has to understand--the deeply, sometimes secretively, held things about a character, whether or not they're explicitly a part of the story. So I'm borrowing these vibrant questions (per the disclaimer on Danielle's site that says that republishing her stuff is cool, as long as she's credited), tweaking them a bit, and passing them along as potential inspiration.

So if you're in the mood for a writing exercise, take the main character(s) in whichever book you're working on right now. And wherever you are in the story right now, be it beginning, ending, or murky middle, pause and ponder these questions. (If you're revising, rather than writing, try asking question #1 twice, at both the story's beginning and end, to get a good glimpse--hopefully--of your character's full arc/growth.)

1. What thing(s), minor or monumental, does your character know to be TRUE in this moment? What, for her/him, is unquestionably beyond doubt, certain with every cell of his/her being, beyond all hesitation--simply and inescapably and absolutely true?

2. [This one's my own addition.] Does anyone know that your character believes the above to be true? (Who? Or if not, why not?)

3.What was the dumbest thing that your character once believed to be true that s/he later learned wasn't entirely true...or wasn't true at all?

Ahhh. Good stuff, eh?

Feel like sharing what you uncover? Go for it--I'd be delighted to "meet" some deeply authentic, bare-souled characters in the comments section--or for you to blog about these ideas on your own blog, and post the link back here. And, truth be told, when you're done thinking about these questions for your characters, they're pretty fantastic to ponder for yourself, too....


  1. Molly,

    These are such great questions. I'm starting to plot a new novel set in a world where a krrrazy belief is used to create social order. I won't spill the details here, but this morning's character-building exercise (for my actual character--I'm a regular peach) will be to answer your questions.

    I'll also put a link to your post on the SCBWI chaptere blog I do. Thanks for sharing this!

  2. Oh, man. I really can spell chapter. It's just harder at 5:30 a.m. on the west coast. :-)

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  4. Holy Crap!

    That's really all I've got to say about this post. So, again...

    Holy Crap!

    This is good stuff. I get very tired of reading about ways to effectively plot out story arcs, write down character development, all that. To me, it always ends up seeming contrived. I like this because it seems less formulaic, and more...I don't know...about transformation. That makes good fiction. Of course, it might be because THIS is how I structure my plots...

  5. I've just begun work on a new novel, and I'm kinda getting stuck. That may be because my central characters aren't formed fully enough yet. I suspect that, once I've figured out the answers to your questions, my characters will lead me forward.

    Thanks so much, Molly!

  6. I like the two questions juxtaposed because it implies that the very thing we so strongly know to be true may one day be the dumbest thing we ever believed.

  7. Molly,
    Thanks for this. There is SO much out there in the blog-universe. I appreciate it when people put something out there that asks you to go a bit deeper, to consider what it means to be truly authentic, and and to "suck the marrow out of life"! Yes!
    This was a gift to me AND my characters. Thanks.

  8. Oh dear, if I replied to all your smart & interesting comments here, I'd have another looong post. (And I'm *supposed* to be writing catalog copy this afternoon, so no can do!) But I am SO glad that it sounds like this resonated in exactly some of the ways that I hoped it would. Happy writing, all!

  9. Wonderful questions, Molly! And I really like the addition of #2: It's a great new way to think about the relationships among key characters.

    Off to go ponder all three questions on my walk tonight!

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  11. You know, I started out intending to post--or to not post, but think to myself--that I had no answer to this. And I was wondering how troubled I should be by this. Certainly it's a value when characters grow and change in a story, but is there no place for a character who gets into a jam and works her way out of it? Can you not have adventure without some grand epiphany?

    Then I realized that I DID have an answer to these questions; I just hadn't thought about it enough. The character in the story I'm revising, Cristina, starts out believing that the authority figures in her life--her parents, teachers, and priests--control her life, and that she can count on them to keep her safe. By the end of the story, she has learned that she can and may need to take matters into her own hand, and that there are people who can help her, but she is the one who needs to initiate action on her own behalf. She has also learned that people in positions of authority are fallible human beings. Sometimes they mean well but get things wrong, and sometimes they don't mean well at all. I guess she'd say the silliest thing she used to believe was that grown-ups were all-knowing and all-powerful.