On Sunday, Andrew Marr was asking Scottish politician Alex Salmond what he would like on his epitaph.
Epitaphs were discussed again on the Today program yesterday and it got me thinking.
An epitaph is a couple of sentences epitomising the dead person i.e. summing up how they lived their life.
It struck me that writing an epitaph might be a good way to get to the heart of a character’s psyche.
I’m sure we’ve all come across those character-creation questionnaires which demand that you fill in everything about your protagonists such as date of birth, hair colour, favourite food, best subject at school and secret fear. I’ve tried doing this but find that I get distracted by stuff that isn’t relevant such as my heroine’s shoe size and what she carries in her handbag.
I feel that what I should be doing is getting to the heart of what my character wants from life, what is stopping him or her from getting it and how they are going to overcome this hurdle by their own efforts. It should be possible to do this in two or three short sentences to fit on a gravestone and then, from these few words, it should be possible to work out what else I need to know about the character’s background.
So I’ve had a quick go at doing this for the hero in my current WIP:
‘A devoted father removed from his son by divorce. He endured unemployment and poverty in order to fulfill his paternal drive.’
Alright, it probably needs polishing and editing before the stone mason gets out his chisel but it helps to focus my mind on what this character wants. Knowing this desire will help to shape his actions through the story and keep him on target to get what he wants.
What about you? Does the twenty (or one hundred) questions method suit your way of working or do you do something completely different to create believable characters?
For those of you who do like the questionnaires as a starting point, there’s a whole array of them here.