Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Fiona Harper on Writing: Inner vows and bad behaviour!

This month Fiona Harper continues her discussion on the lies our characters believe about themselves and the world, and how this influences their behaviour. 

Last time I talked about how our characters often believe something that isn’ttrue, often as a result of a traumatic event in their backstory. Think about Shrek. He believes he’s totally unlovable. Why? Because when people see him coming they run away, or they try and chase him off with pitchforks. Even when he tried to connect with other people, they rejected him.

But when our characters internalise the lie that life has taught them, they take it even further. Brain scientist Dr Caroline Leaf says that our thoughts create emotions. Emotions then stimulate attitudes and those attitudes then cause certain behaviour.

Let’s break it down: 

Thought/lie: Shrek thinks that everyone hates him because they always run away.  
Emotion: This causes him to be both hurt and angry. (If he felt a positive emotion such as joy or peace, the resulting attitude would have been vastly different!)
Attitude/belief: out of anger and hurt he decides that he won’t try to connect or interact with people anymore.
Behaviour: he lives in a swamp on his own and chases away anyone who tries to get close.

If we understand these kind of things about our characters, how their thought processes work deep down inside, and we show them clearly on the page, we will never have characters whose actions seem inconsistent or badly motivated. In other words, make your characters think how people do in real life, then they’ll seem more like real people! Isn’t that we we all want?

I have one last thing to add. I find that asking what inner vow my character has made because of the lie and the attitude that has grown out of it is really helpful when pin-pointing exactly what their lie-induced behaviour should be.

For example, one of the heroines in my book Make My Wish Come True, Juliet, is a domestic goddess and control freak.

Lie: A traumatic event in Juliet’s backstory (I won’t spill the beans in case you want to read the book!) means that she believes her younger sister was her parents’ favourite.
Emotion: She, understandably, feels hurt and jealous about this.
Inner vow: She has decided that she needs to be perfect in order to be loved, because she’s always had to compete with Gemma and being herself just wasn’t good enough.
Behaviour: She’s driving herself, and everyone around her, dotty as she tries to be the perfect daughter/mother/wife, and it’s at Christmas when all this neurosis comes to the fore, meaning she feels she has to create the perfect Christmas every year too.

Try this quick exercise and see if you can unearth the trail from wound to behaviour for your character:
1. What is the traumatic event in my character’s past?
2. What lie have they bought into because of this event?
3. How does that make them feel?
4. What attitude has solidified inside them that helps them deal with that emotion?
5. Can you express that attitude as an inner vow or as a motto your character holds?
6. What kind of behaviour does that vow/attitude lead to?

Fiona's latest book is out now, available on Amazon,Waterstones, The Book Depository, W H Smith and Mills & Boon.

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. This is helpful Fiona. I have novel that is at the back of my mind and that I hope one day will make it to the computer and beyond. This is helpful for me to work on the main character. Thank you.

  2. I replied here earlier, but for some reason Blogger gobbled it up!

    Thanks, Lynda! If you want to hear some really, really great stuff on deep character stuff, try out a DVD by Christopher Vogler (author of The Writer's Journey) and Michael Hauge, called The Hero's Two Journeys. I've just been at a summit where they were talking at the weekend, and it was absolutely brilliant. (

  3. You have a great way of putting things to make them clear Fiona, thank you. I particularly struggle with some of these areas so your advice is timely. I also appreciate the way you give us an exercise to work with. (Love your books as well) Looking forward to applying these to my latest wip. :)