Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Fiona Harper on Writing: The Lies We Tell Ourselves...

This month Fiona Harper looks at the murky interior world of a character's thoughts, particularly the almost subconscious decisions they make that drive their behaviour.

Like most authors I have a list of questions that I like to ask my characters when I'm getting to know them. I used to cover things such as school in and siblings and hobbies, but nowadays I’ve trimmed my character interview down to a few telling questions that map out my protagonists’ inner lives, goals, hang-ups and conflicts.

The main questions I ask are borrowed from screenwriting guru Michael Hague:
What is your character's longing? (Inner goal.)
What is your character's wound? (Traumatic event in the back story.)
What is your character's fear? (Linked to the wound, and is often the opposite of what they longing for.)
What is your character's belief? (A conclusion they have come to as a result of the wound.)
What is your character's identity? (Who have they become to protect themselves from that fear?)
What is your character's essence? (Who are they really? Or who do they have the potential to grow into?)

For more on Michael Hague's ideas and questions, you can check out his website or listen to him give a workshop.

However, I've started adding a few extra questions to my list. The first is this:

What lie (about themselves or the world they live in) has my character bought into?

This is similar to Michael Hague's belief above, but I wanted to be more specific, get under the skin of that belief, so to speak.

Our thinking determines our behaviour. At the start of a story most protagonists will be engaged in some kind of unhelpful behaviour that is stopping them from achieving both their external and internal goals. If your book has a happy ending, then during the course of the story they will often learn to abandon this behaviour in favour of a new way of doing things, which will ultimately lead to success when it comes to attaining their goal(s).

For example, in my latest book Make My Wish Come True my heroine, Juliet, believes that her younger sister Gemma was the favourite daughter and will always outshine her. She believes that no matter how hard she tries she will always be second best, and this is confirmed after her husband divorces her and meets the woman he proclaims is the “love of his life” – something Juliet realises he never said about her when they were married.

This feeling of second best leads Juliet to both resent her sister and do everything in her power to be the perfect daughter, wife and sister – as a means of competing with Gemma and the belief wrong.

This belief is linked to to the pain in the character’s past and, therefore, the behaviour that grows out of it is part of the flawed behaviour that needs to change. This belief is almost always a false belief. In other words, it is a lie.

Often our characters may be unaware they believe this lie. They may even say the opposite, or fight against it, but deep down in their hearts this is what they fear is true.

For your character's behaviour to change, they must first see the lie for what it is, and replace it with truth, because only when their thinking changes will their behaviour change, and without the behaviour change they are not going to achieve the Happy Ever After that comes with attaining their goals.

For Juliet to find happiness in her future, she has to believe she is worth more than being second best. Only then will she stop driving people away with her perfectionist high standards and learn how to accept herself for who she is and others for who they are.

This is often a slow process. Although the lie is making your character unhappy, they will often not want to discard it, because it is part of their defence mechanism. They may only get a glimpse of the truth at first, and hardly dare to believe it, but the plot should push them into testing their falsely-held belief until they see it for what it is and, ultimately, discard it.

So…what lie about themselves, or the world around them, have your hero and heroine bought into, and how has this affected how they think and how they act?

Next time: how the almost subconscious lie can lead to a conscious decision, with resulting fallout.

Fiona's first single title romance is out in November! You can buy it on Amazon, Waterstones and on Kobo.

The perfect Christmas Swap?
Make my wish smallAll Juliet, frazzled single mum and Yuletide domestic goddess, wants for Christmas is a joyful family celebration (even if she does have to wrestle with last-minute angel costume making and shopping centre dashes).
All her single sister Gemma, and assistant director, wants is a Christmas in the sizzling Caribbean sun, away from diva actors and Hollywood tantrums.
Until a sisterly squabble prompts new plans: a Christmas swap.

Gemma will spend a cozy, snowy Christmas with her nieces and nephews – not to mention Juliet’s gorgeous neighbour Will – whilst Juliet takes Gemma’s tropical holiday and unplanned adventures.

It’s not the Christmas they expected, but it could be about to make all their wishes come true…


  1. Oh thank you for such an informative post, Fiona. Best of luck with your single title release. Love the cover. Caroline x

  2. Brilliant summary as always Fiona and I could not agree more. This is the perfect kick start to developing a compelling romance. Nina.

  3. Thanks, Nina! Harder to get it on the page than waffle on about, though!