Justine: What is Your Character’s Truth?

justine covington, eight ladies writingLast week I got to work with Margie Lawson at her home in Colorado (elevation 8500 ft. and yes, it snowed!). I was there for an Immersion Master Class, an intensive 4-day, small-group class where she uses her experience as a psychotherapist to help writers make the most of their words.

It was an amazing experience.

We spent the first half of each day working as a group under Margie’s instruction. She teaches us about various rhetorical devices and other tools to use to amp up our writing. In the afternoon, we each get about 30-45 minutes working with her one-on-one on our manuscript. Because I’m already taking another class with her, we were able to get through my entire first chapter and in my opinion, it’s SO much better than it was before.

One of the key takeaways I got from Immersion happened when Margie and I were working together. We were going through the second half of the first chapter, which is in Nate’s POV. I had a line in there about Nate’s reaction to Susannah. It went something like this:

“Go away,” she said, without looking up.

Nate suppressed a grin. She was so much more interesting than the society ladies of his acquaintance. She wasn’t coy. She wasn’t scheming. She was direct and fresh as a warm spring breeze.

It’s decent. Not perfect, but not horrible, either.

Then Margie asked me a question. “What is Nate’s truth?”

“Huh?”

“His truth. What is his life? What has it been? What is it now?”

I sat there on her Cozy Couch in the Cozy Room and thought about it for a minute.

I told Margie that Nate is a spy. For the last 10 years or so. That means lots of lying, lots of hiding, lots of not-telling-the-truth or trying-to-find-the-truth. Socially, he’s surrounded by women who want to land him as a husband. They’re calculating, as are their mamas. They want his title. They’re not really interested in him. Then he meets this girl who is direct, a bit of a potty-mouth, unconventional, and totally not interested in him. It’s a mind-blowing moment.

Margie and I spent a bit more time discussing Nate’s “truth,” then I went back to the kitchen, where the other Immersioners were working, to see if I could come up with something more original to demonstrate his feelings towards Susannah.

This is what I ultimately settled on:

“Go away.” She didn’t even look up.

Nate tried not to laugh. Every other woman wanted to entice him, to tempt him, to trap him. Yet she…she was guileless. Not coy. Not cunning.

She was everything the last ten years of his life was not.

I got kudos from Margie (and the other Immersioners) when I ran that by them later, and quite honestly, I’m pretty proud of it. I think my revised passage gives some great insight into what makes Nate tick and why Susannah is so appealing to him.

I took Margie’s “truth” idea and began looking more closely at other things I had written. I actually ended up rearranging (and cutting) a lot of stuff from Chapter 2, which is all Nate’s POV. But the stuff I cut didn’t reveal anything about Nate’s character. It was just info-sharing (aka, showing off my mad research skills).

We didn’t discuss the “truth” stuff until the second half of my first chapter, so I’m eager to go back into the first half (which is in Susannah’s POV) and see what changes I need to make there to identify her truths. I already know a few changes I need to make in future chapters.

Margie’s insight into finding, recognizing, and capitalizing on my character’s truth, and making sure that the actions, reactions, metaphors, similes, and words I choose fit that truth, was one of the highlights of my week.

There were many more, but I’ll save them for another post.

If you’re interested in learning more about Margie Lawson’s Immersion Master Class or the other classes offered at Lawson’s Writers Academy, you can read up on them here.

19 thoughts on “Justine: What is Your Character’s Truth?

    • Yes, this qualified as “thought-provoking” for me, too. I love it when I learn something I can put to use right away. Good luck with NaNo and I hope you’re able to make good use of this tid-bit. 🙂

  1. Nice addition to the tool-box, Justine, thank you! Look forward to hearing more about your writing adventures in Colorado 😉

  2. Justine —

    I swear I just heard Eliza say:

    “The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain.”

    And Professor Higgins said to Pickering:

    “By George, she’s got it. By George, she’s got it. Now once again, where does it rain?”

    I’m thinking:

    “By George, she’s got it. By George, she’s got it. Now once again, what’s Nate’s truth?”

    KUDOS TO JUSTINE!

    Your BEFORE is good. Your AFTER is NYT stellar!

    Such a joy to work with you, and Rhay, Kim, Jessie, Erin, and Paul. You’re all incredibly talented. So glad I get to keep working with you into December in Fab 30 class!

    I’m opening registration for January courses offered through Lawson Writer’s Academy today. I’m teaching Empowering Characters’ Emotions in January. I love digging deep to add power!

    Thanks for sharing The Truth on your blog!

    • Agreed! What a great example of how we can – as you say – make the most of our words! MAJOR props to you for finding just where and how to apply it in your writing. And a HUGE thanks to you, Margie, for knowing just how to TEACH IT in a way that educates, excites, and inspires! I have to agree with Justine: that immersion class was the best time I’ve spent learning about writing. Hands down!

  3. Great post. I did an immersion with Margie in Melbourne this year. Love all the little things Margie gets you to look at, consider etc. to make your characters and story fuller and more exciting. She also got me to consider my male character’s truth and it changed how I saw him.

    • Exactly. This truth business is changing how I see all of my characters, not only as a whole, but scene-by-scene. I’m not sure why I never “saw” it before, but I’m sure glad I do now!

  4. I do love Margie! She’s brilliant. One day I plan to be in an immersion class. By the way, your second passage was much improved.

    What is a character’s truth? Great question.

    • Thanks for the compliment on the passage. I’m very happy with it.

      Make Immersion happen if you can. It’s really career-changing. It’s also a lot to take in, but so worth it!

  5. (-: I think a lot of us spend the entire first draft wandering around, poking in holes, and trying to figure out what the truth is. Often, the character doesn’t know, and we have to figure it out by analyzing his/her actions.

    I have a gut feeling that maybe it’s bad to try and push the truth to come out too fast. Do any of you have thoughts about that?

    I completely agree that at least the author needs to know what everyone’s truth is before we send it off to “auditions” (the publisher or the agent). I bet a lot of writers start off knowing the truths, too, so it’s just a matter of judgement. I’m a little scared to poke too deeply into truths. Doing that can be cataclysmic — but that’s exactly what we want in a book, right? (-: Big explosions and collapsing houses that lead to revealing the bare truth.

    I seem to be really drawn to the type of story where the character doesn’t know what she (it’s almost always a she) wants at first. If she still doesn’t know by the end of the story, though, I tend to get a bit frustrated with her. (This can happen in series when the author wants to leave room to arc . . . . I can’t think of any other examples offhand.)

    • I think another way to think about truth isn’t so much big-picture as it is small-scene. For example, the next scene I’m working on is when Nate and Tradwick share what they’ve learned about Cressingham, Nate is told to court Susannah, etc. At one point, Tradwick tells Nate that Napoleon may be on the move. In my original (read: 34th) draft, Nate sort of takes it as bad news, but there wasn’t any emotional investment in it.

      On this last pass, I thought about what Napoleon potentially returning to power might mean to him. For one, Nate likely partly blames Napoleon for his friends’ deaths, because if the war hadn’t been going on, they wouldn’t have been in harm’s way. Second, it’s the extension of the last 10 stressful years of his life, which he thought he’d put mostly behind him. Third, it means more men may die. More friends. Perhaps his best friend Tradwick.

      So whereas in my 34th draft, Nate experiences a chill running down his spine, says something along the lines of “that’s bad,” and has a rather practical/political thought on the whole thing, in the 35th draft, I add the emotional element (his truth):

      “Nate’s heart tripped, stopped, restarted. It was very bad. He swirled the wine in his glass and stared at the vortex of liquid. As far as he was concerned, that man, that…L’Empereur, was as much responsible for the death of his friends as Cressingham. If Boney had not been in power, raping European countries, subjugating European people, his friends never would have been at war.

      Never would have been in danger.

      Never would have been murdered.”

      I would agree with you, for the most part, that it may take a completed first draft to figure out your character’s truth on a grand, story-level scale, but a little thinking into the logical emotional reaction to a stimulus (whether it’s something said or done) may reveal itself whether it’s the first draft or the fortieth.

      • This has been a very good post, Justine, and given me a lot of food for thought.

        And it’s strange — just this weekend I was talking about books with a friend, and mentioned how I couldn’t get into a lot of stuff like Hemingway because I’d never lived through a war. I tend to gravitate toward society-building fiction. But just imagine if I had been through a war because society told me that was the best thing. To see friends and family die for some vague cause. I guess it would turn me toward individualism, too.

  6. Pingback: Justine: Cut, Hack, and Chop | Eight Ladies Writing

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