Monday, June 3, 2013

That’s Not How I Walk: Compulsions and Understanding the Little Things About Our Characters

For my 40th birthday, my husband gave me an amazing gift: Cheryl Klein’s online master plotting course through Writer’s Digest. The course materials are based on Cheryl’s most excellent book SECOND SIGHT. It was an intense eight weeks of dissecting and analyzing plot using a draft manuscript (or, in my case, a partial draft manuscript). I want to do a series of posts on what I learned from taking Cheryl’s course without giving away too much of her plotting approach and advice. (Read her book! Take her course!)
One of the areas I want to really improve as a writer is in crafting complex characters. As Cheryl presented in her course, there are a few ways to structure plot, with a character-based structure being one of them. This was one of my favorite week of the course because it gave me food for thought on improving my characters while improving my middle grade plot.
She asked one question that created a watershed moment for me and my manuscript.
What’s your character’s compulsion?
This might seem like a familiar question. We probably all know what our characters want and why they want it. Motivation is key to our characters, especially the choices they'll make during their journey. But Cheryl’s use of the word “compulsion” got me thinking a bit differently about motivation.
One definition of compulsion is an irresistible urge to behave in a certain way.
Our characters do things, make choices, because of who they are to their very core. I know surface things about my main character, but did I really understand her compulsions and how they affect the small things about her?
When I started to dig into my main character’s compulsions, I made some pretty interesting discoveries. Those discoveries showed me where I had some mischaracterizations of her in my manuscript.
The one epiphany I found most interesting is that I had her walk all wrong.  In my opening scene, my MC is going to the local corner store. Along the way, she’s thinking and observing.  With a better understanding of my MC’s compulsion, I realize that this walk isn’t enjoyable for her, even if she is getting out of school and spending time in the sunshine.  And because it isn't enjoyable, her gait in my current draft is all wrong.
With a better understanding of my MC’s compulsion, I realize she needs to pick up the pace.
And so does the next draft of my manuscript.
What are some of the a-ha moments you’ve had with a character and what brought you to that realization?


  1. This is a great plotting tool. Wow! Definitely something I hadn't really thought about.

    I had an ah-ha moment with my character when I realized her story was starting at all the wrong places. The previous things weren't as important to her as the things I was currently writing about. Massive change... in a good way.
    Thanks for sharing some of the wisdom you've learned.

  2. In Crow's Rest, Avery's compulsion is to blurt out what she's thinking--whether it's embarrassing, unintentionally hurtful, or whatever. It definitely shapes a lot of her character, and some plot points in the book.

  3. Love how thoroughly you followed through on the compulsion. It's all too easy to think of a character quirk, but not really apply it in depth!


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