Character is destiny? Why?

If you’re anything like me, you’ve bashed on without bothering with questionnaires and exercises and are staring at a standard rejection or two by now. The kind that maybe misspell your name and give absolutely no clue why your story isn’t right. The main thing I’ve learned the hard way is not to send work out too soon.

It’s a hard fact though that rejections teach us how to improve our work, by which I mean they teach us that our work needs to improve. We all do apprenticeship at this. Rome wasn’t built in a day and good novels take time and skill to write.


(The original of this cartoon hangs in my hall, by the way.)

So, why do I start with these character sessions? Not only because ‘character is destiny’, as Heraclitus is supposed to have said, but because of the magic trick I learned from playwrights: spend time getting to know your characters deeply, actually being with them, hearing them speak, and you can bypass a whole stage of the drafting process and get to a more sophisticated draft more quickly.

It’s fun to design our plot, move our people like chess pieces into the scenarios we want, building the story in the way that suits our own world view and agenda. It can be all too easy to forget to give thought to whether they would behave like that. And if they would, why.

Characters are always the heart, soul and engine of your story and the better you know them, the more your reader will want to be in your book’s world. Your plan is not irrelevant, not at all, but the space between your plan and what your characters want is where those really memorable fictional characters thrive. It’s also the most exciting place to be when you’re writing.

Darcy cover

So let’s go deeper now – Stage 2:

If it hasn’t happened already, let your character lead the conversation freely from now on (in your scribble-chats on your page or screen) for as long as they want. The questions below are your prompts and any one of these answers could take the two of you a whole day or even a weekend. Good questions come in pairs – feel free to add your own. The ‘you’ below is of-course your invented character though it’s sometimes fun, as a separate exercise, to let the questions guide you down your own memory lane:

  • What is your greatest victory? Your greatest defeat?
  • Your greatest excitement? Greatest boredom?
  • Your idea or experience of perfect happiness? And of perfect misery?
  • When was or would be your experience of the greatest trap in your life? When was your greatest escape?
  • Your greatest delight? Your greatest fear, past, present or future?
  • What would be or has been your greatest happiness and joy? Your greatest sadness?
  • Your greatest achievement? And greatest loss?

A little trick

If you leave these exercises aside, planning to come back later, try to finish with an upbeat one – not the greatest trap or misery for example, unless you’re on to something amazing. That way you’ll come back with a happier heart.

Look how far you and your character have come together! Do you know more about character now than you do about the person you share a bathroom with (or wish you did)? Congratulations, you’ve made a huge step into your novel or story and saved yourself masses of faffing and redrafting later.

Next week I’ll show you how these discoveries take you by the hand to the very core of your story…

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