Finding a Character’s Hidden Heart: Martha Brockenbrough
Welcome to Creative Conversations. Uber-talented author Martha Brockenbrough is here with me today. Martha is the award-winning author of nine books. From beloved picture books like her latest Love, Santa, to her recently released historical fiction, Alexander Hamilton – Revolutionary, to her acclaimed novels, Devine Intervention, and 2016 winner of the Washington State Book Award The Game of Love and Death, Martha does it all with brilliance.
Janet: Great to have you here, Martha.
Martha: Hi, Janet! I’m so happy to be here.
Janet: When I asked Martha what she’d like to focus on, she said, “Getting to a character’s hidden heart.” I said, “Let’s go for it!” So, what brought this issue to mind, Martha?
Martha: A couple of things brought the question of heart to mind … the first is that feedback I’ve been getting about a novel that I’m working on is that readers aren’t quite feeling the character’s heart. This is, of course, not all that fun for a writer to hear. We all want to hear that our work is perfect and brilliant and all of those things.
The reality is, it’s hard to get to that point. And it usually means that your character is hiding something from you. And since we are, in a way, our characters, it means you’re not being honest with yourself about something. So this is all about cultivating enough vulnerability to be deeply, truly, and profoundly honest.
Janet: First of all, I relate to all of the above. I’ve had critiquers say that when I thought I was bleeding all over the page, Martha. So, yes, it’s a clue that somehow, it’s not getting across or that the character seems to be holding back, which means We are holding back. It’s also a clue that I might be expressing heart, but am I expressing this particular character’s heart? I have some things I do to dig deeper when this happens, but I’d like to hear from you first.
Martha: I often equate my success as a writer with concrete milestones. Words written. Books published. Deadlines met. And yet other work has to happen before those external milestones can be. That work is thinking and feeling.
And isn’t it funny that we talk about them in that order? It’s in reverse. It’s feeling and thinking. Emotion is at the heart of art and writing. It’s at the heart of the human experience. Feeling things is what prompts us to think, and if we don’t let ourselves feel—which is sometimes painful—then we do not have the basis for thinking. So, I think about feelings I have had in my life, feelings that I want to show on the page.
Janet: A good approach– to make it personal to you to begin with. Feelings first. By the way, I hate it when my counselor asks, “How are you feeeeeeeeling?” Ish! When I’m seeking my character’s heart, I go back to my journal where I can let it all fly and ask my character deeply personal questions like, who inspired you? Who betrayed you? Whom do you trust? What are you hiding? What is your deepest shameful secret? And when I hear the answers, I go in with the deeper digger and ask, “Why?” “Why are you ashamed? Why did they betray you? Why does that bring you joy? The question, “Why?” asks for a deeper answer and also reveals connections.
Martha: YES. It’s not “how” are you feeling. It’s “what” are you feeling. I don’t know why, but the small word distinction there means everything to me. So I think about who my character is, and what she has suffered in this world that makes her feel unworthy. That’s the key. All humans have worth. Many humans have had experiences that make them feel worth less—or even worthless.
So what were those moments? What did they involve? How did she respond? And, on the far side of the wound, what happened to her and what did she do to regain that sense of worth, if she did? (Which, in the books I write, always happens to some extent or another).
If I can identify the emotions—and there are always more than just the one—I can also think about the circumstances and then construct events designed to optimize the sharpness of that emotional moment. It’s the feeling that drives the character and constructing obstacles to create the maximum conflict and suffering/ecstasy that’s the trick, and all of this happens by understanding that feeling in my own life and translating it to the intellectual realm.
Practically speaking, there are some tricks. For example, one I learned from the great editor Patti Lee Gauch: She had us write a scene where our character is forced to do the one thing she least wants to do.
This is a genius exercise because it: 1) Makes us understand what our character loves and must lose; 2) makes us understand what our character fears; and 3) makes us understand who has power in our character’s world and why.
Janet: Wow! I must do this one, Martha. Would you be willing to tell us what that revealed to you regarding a particular character? I was looking at The Game of Love and Death this morning and remembering the strength of all the characters in that work. Even Love and Death changed in that last, poignant chapter. Did you use Patti’s exercise on any of the characters in the book and if so, do you remember what you discovered?
Martha: I did! And it’s a useful exercise to use at MANY points in a novel. It’s funny because the exercise, which I learned maybe 9 years ago, inspired my current WIP, which I started before The Game of Love and Death (sometimes, we have to set aside things to work on the fire that engulfs our heart; this was one of those times). Death was a pretty complex character in that book. For those who haven’t read it, she is literally the embodiment of death, and when a human dies, their lives and memories are absorbed by her.
She must do this work. It is what she is meant to do. She hates it and hates being the one everyone fears. In a way, I envisioned her as being something of an addict. I don’t say this to demean or distort addiction, just to say that she is someone who did not want to be feeling these things, and yet craved it nonetheless, and hated that contradiction in her. It was a metaphor for me, of all of the things I hate about myself and yet cannot really help. So, there is a character in the book whom she really doesn’t want to take, but must, and when she does it, she gives the character a gift of sorts. And it turned out to be one of my favorite scenes, because she did the thing she really didn’t want to do but had to for a variety of reasons, and she revealed her own ambivalence and complexity—and ultimately created the path for her own redemption. It really was all about understanding that Death didn’t want to be who she was. But she had to be. And she had to figure out how to live with that.
Janet: The hard work you did exploring your character was such a gift to me as a reader. That was deep digging and worth the gold. It’s one of the reasons I love the book so much. No one can read that last chapter and not be moved unless their hearts are stone. Speaking of stone hearts, have you found any characters to be harder to crack, and if so, do you have an insight as to why? I got early comments about Jackrun (In the Time of Dragon Moon) before multiple revisions, that he just “wasn’t there yet.” I tend to write secretive characters and that can be a problem. Hmmm…
Martha: Oh, my main characters are almost impossible to crack for me. I wrote 31 drafts of The Game of Love and Death, and toward the end very nearly cut Flora’s viewpoint—which seems almost impossible to think about now. But she was so secretive, I think because she has been so wounded. Characters with real wounds hide those so well. This is how they function in the world. This is what makes them interesting. And finding ways to tease those out respectfully is hard to do.
For me, the secondary characters are easier because they feel lower-stakes. This isn’t true. Every secondary character is the star of their own story. So clearly, it is MY fear at play here. And of course it is because these main characters’ stories are ones that matter deeply to me, deeply enough that I will spend years working to tell them. I don’t want to fail.
Janet: Yes. What you just said makes me think it would be interesting to do Patti’s exercise as ourselves in the writer’s role. What scares the heck out of us? What do we least want to face?
You mentioned –finding ways to respectfully tease out the wounds that our characters are hiding. I’ve always thought the core plot should do just that? We ask her or him, “What are you most afraid of?” Then when we learn that we say, “Have I got a story for you!”
The other thing we haven’t mentioned that I think is KEY is we are not only revealing our characters, we are telling a story and the central characters have to carry the weight of the story. Essentially, they have a job to do, just as we have a job to do. Sometimes I think the conflicts regarding the author/character relationship stem from that.
Martha: I think this is part of the value of not having all the answers when we start. We want to, of course. And some people are firm believers in plotting everything beforehand, which makes great sense on paper. I have found this less effective in practice. If we really could figure out the solution to life’s deepest challenges in linear order, well, our stories might very well be predictable and shallow. That’s not usually the goal.
So, often it’s better to start with questions and work through the answers, taking the time that it takes.
Story is a useful vehicle for this. Stories are built around characters who want things and who fear things. Plot is what happens in their pursuit of desires and retreat from fears. Structure is how we reveal that to the reader. So however we can truly understand our character’s heart, well, that’s the work we need to do. That’s at the essence of it. Everything else is the physical labor of it. But the emotional and intellectual labor has to happen before the typing—the word count, the chapter milestones, the drafts—can happen. Or maybe not exclusively before. But you see what I’m saying. The heart of the character is the core of the book, and the strength of the story will depend on the density and heat of the heart.
Janet: You are speaking from a place of deep knowledge and power, Martha. I will be reading this, again and again, to remind myself the true north. We are not often taught to write from the inside out, but here, you acknowledge that story is exploration. I have always said story is transformation — and that’s true when the work is done from that deeper place of exploration.
Martha: Well, Janet, as you know, you have long been my mentor in this work. So I thank you for that!
And I think it really comes down to understanding the role of books in our lives. Books are a product, to be sure. And the most profitable books always get a lot of attention. But all books do important work. And sure, they can be meant to entertain: Company and delight is something necessary to a good life. But they can do additional work beyond this. Books help us experience multiple lives, and in doing so create the empathy that is necessary to live in a world with others (and Others). Books let us practice being human, so when in the real world we encounter scares, traumas, joys, sources of grief, we know what to do. And books let us have conversations with other writers and readers across time and space. We are not alone in this work of living and dying. And this is probably the thing that I like most about being a writer, is using my work to walk through the world with others—and likewise, walking through the world with other readers and writers. It’s a miracle, really, that ink on the page creates worlds. Connections. Empathy. Understanding. Hope. I can’t think of a better way to spend a too-short life.
Janet: I’m so glad we are walking this way together, Martha. And honored to share this walk/talk with other Dreamwalkers. There is gold here in your words that help me remember who I am and what I came here to do. If we are mapmakers, I hope we continue to keep up our courage to seek the unknown that leads us all home.
Martha: I love that you use the word “home.” It’s one of my all-time favorite words. I love the sound of it. The closure and security it gives. And I think this really is it. We start out in these small bodies, bodies that came from just two cells. And we become home inside of them. We learn to sit, crawl, walk, speak. And sometimes things happen to make us no longer feel home inside these precious vessels, and the challenge in life is to find our way back to that place. And to find neighborhoods with others. And to feel a connection to the world. When we write, we create so many homes and streets and maps, with skies and stars overhead to guide our travelers and ourselves. It’s magic of the deepest sort. I love it so.
Janet: Instead of saying, The End at the conclusion of this conversation with you, Martha. I’ll say one word. The place we’ve reached together.