One of the best ways to address “difficult” characters, or characters you struggle to understand, is to use one of my favorite prompts, the Best Day Ever Prompt.
The prompt is simple: think of what the greatest day ever looked like for one of your characters. If you are motivated, do it for all your characters. If asked to describe this moment or this day, what would your character say? What was it like?
I did one of these for my story, Donkey Kong in Trouble, looking for a way “in” to my second chapter, a follow up story called “Burial.”
Doggy, the narrator, is a middle school girl who is in an increasingly dangerous relationship with her mother. Doggy fears her mother will kill her in the present story time. But in her Greatest Day Ever memory, Doggy remembers a day her mother stayed at home with her when she was sick. They spent the day in bed watching daytime television, cuddled up together. That night, Doggy is allowed to sleep with her mother in the same bed, and as she drifts off her mother tells her she loves her. If you know these characters, you know that Doggy’s mother would have a very different idea of her favorite day, and it would not include Doggy. Doggy’s mother remembers a day on the beach in El Salvador, before she was pregnant, before the war, before she was married. She wore a red bikini and she ate oysters all day. In retrospect, Doggy’s mother wishes she would have savored that day and stayed at the beach with her friends just a little longer. She didn’t know that within a few years several of them would be dead and she would have an unwanted child.
Jessica remembers something entirely else. Jessica, Doggy’s 13 year old neighbor, remembers a few months ago when her mother broke up with her abusive boyfriend. Jessica had often worried her mother wouldn’t stand up to him, but by boosting her mother’s self esteem and reminding her they have each other no matter what, her drunk and sometimes irresponsible mother manages to leave her mean-spirited boyfriend. Jessica and her mother bond that night, as mother first reveals to her how lovely it is to have a daughter.
I always wonder if the characters are having a momentous experience in my story, and if not, why not. What would be their momentous experience, bad or good, of a lifetime? When I started to think about it, Donkey Kong in Trouble was a Worst Day Ever story. Or maybe not, maybe things could be worse, but this a First Time Ever story for a character’s sense of independence.
Try it – honestly, I really hope you get something from it. A great day prompt really lets you know how character’s would have liked life to be, if everything worked out perfectly.