Susan May Warren is the
USA Today best-selling, RITA, Christy and Carol award-winning author
of over fifty novels. A popular writing teacher at conferences around
the nation, she’s also the founder of Novel.Academy and author of
the popular writing book, The Story Equation. Visit her AUTHOR SITE
I’m in a show hole.
You know, that darkness that you fall into when you finish a great show and you know that nothing, not even reruns of Outlander, will fix it.
But, the darkness does allow you time for contemplation as you mindlessly flip through Netflix offerings. Why, oh why, did I love that show so much.
So, I confess, the show I am missing today is Hell on Wheels. I know, I know, it has some historical issues, and before you judge me on the violence, I watched it with the hubs, who loves cowboy shows. And this is about as cowboy as you get.
But I watched it for the lead, Cullen Bohannan.
If you haven’t seen it, I’m not going to give anything away, but I will say that it’s not necessary for the fainthearted. It’s a rough-edged western about the building of the transcontinental railroad. I’m pretty sure not a lot of it is factual, but who knows.
Let’s skip to the important part—Cullen Bohannan. Aside from being darkly handsome, I loved the deeply layered character who came to the page, with all his issues, his unshakable honor (although one might have a conversation about what his definition of honor is) and his determination to build the railroad. Most of all, I love how the writers took Cullen from a stereotyped, angry former confederate soldier with a jaded, broken heart, bent on revenge to a man who won the hearts of his workers, found compassion and finally followed his healing heart to the woman he loves.
It took five seasons. And I can imagine that the writers started with a prototype, not unlike we do when we start building the Story Equation. They began with an adjective and a noun. Angry Former Confederate Soldier. Angry—why? Because he’d lost his wife and child to Yankee bandits. The Former Confederate Soldier distinction brings in all sorts of external images—stoic, with a southern accent, a sense of upper-crust breeding (he was a plantation owner) reflected in his clothing (he always wears a vest with a pocket watch). Still, he’s a renegade with long hair, a beard and a quick draw.
When you’re building a character, that’s where you start—with an adjective and a noun. The adjective helps you understand your character’s state of mind and helps you discover the inner journey. The Noun gives you his externals.
But that’s just the beginning. As you write your story, the goal is for the reader to discover your hero’s essence. Who is he on the inside?
As Cullen moves the railroad west, he has a few love interests, and each of them get a glimpse of the real Cullen Bohannan. One sees the gentleman in him. Another sees the wanna-be family man. The last sees his good heart, that he really does want to do what’s right. In fact, she tells him, “I see you.
At his heart, Cullen is a hero, a man deeply affected by his times, but someone who is willing to sacrifice anything to (what he considers) is the right thing.
Your job, as an author, is to bring the essence of your character to the surface. To reveal him, through his actions and choices. To help the reader “see” your character.
One way I do this is to ask: Can my character do something at the end, that he can’t at the beginning? And, if so, why? (and can my reader see the why, that motivation?)
Telling a great story about an epic event like building a transcontinental railroad is only as good as the characters who embody your story. Start them out with an external identity…but slowly reveal their essence, and I promise you, readers will fall in love.
Now, anybody have any good shows they’d like to suggest?
Your story matters! Go, Write Something Brilliant!