Creating Compelling Characters: Know Their Past… Beth Vogt

Creating Compelling Characters: 
Know Their Past
to Write Their Now

by Beth Vogt

As I crossed over from the nonfiction side of the writing road to
the fiction side – a.k.a. the Dark Side – I needed to master new rules
of the road. Even as a novice novelist, I knew a can’t-put-it-down
book needs compelling characters. But how did I go about developing
captivating imaginary people? I found an online “character questionnaire,”
pages and pages of getting-to-know-you information deemed vital to my
hero and heroine.

When I was done filling in the blanks, I had a severe case of writer’s
cramp, a worn-out favorite pen, and all sorts of Intel about my main
characters: birth dates, professions, political affiliations, church
denominations, favorite snack foods, favorite colors, favorite movies
… you get the idea.

I was ready for a game of character trivia – and nothing more.

My Book Therapy, best-selling author Susan May Warren’s writing
community, provided the first key to developing true-to-life characters:
the Dark Moment. The Dark Moment is a specific
negative event in your character’s past that shapes them into the
person they are today, i.e. at the beginning of your novel.

Why is the Dark Moment so important to developing your hero and heroine?
The Dark Moment leads to a:

  • Wound – which causes them to act a certain way
  • Lie – that they believe is true (usually some sort of lie about themselves)


How to develop the Dark Moment

When you mull over your character’s past, their Dark Moment has
to be s-p-e-c-i-f-i-c. You can’t just say,
“My hero had a rough childhood” or “My heroine feels like her
father doesn’t love her.” You need to know why the character says
and does the things they do – and to accomplish that, you have to
go back to the Dark Moment and experience it with your character. When
you write out the Dark Moment, include things like:

  • Date – How old was your character when the Dark Moment happened? Hint: It should happen early in their life – no later than the end of high school or very early college. The Dark
    Moment event has to influence who your character becomes, so they have to be young
    enough for the event to shape their personality and beliefs.
  • People – Who was involved in the Dark Moment?
  • Location – Where was your character when the Dark Moment happened?
  • Details – What happened? Add in Storyworld, five senses and dialogue.
  • Results – Why was the Dark Moment so hurtful to your character?

Here’s an example of how you could be specific about a heroine’s
Dark Moment: When Adele Smith was 12, her family vacationed in Destin,
FL. Her parents told her to keep an eye on Jill, her 6-year-old sister.
They were playing in the waves – and Adele was watching the cute lifeguard
– and before she knew it, they both got caught in a riptide. The lifeguard
rescued Adele – but Jill drowned. 
Dark Moment, yes? I would go into even more detail if I were plotting
an actual novel, but for the sake of today’s word count, I kept it
brief. Even so, I did hit date, people, location, details and results.
The Dark Moment is powerful because it affects your character –
they say the things they say, make certain choices – because of that
particular negative past experience.
The Power of the Dark Moment
Why is the Dark Moment such a potent way to create gripping characters?
Because we are taking a real-life truth and weaving it into our fiction.
Each of us has our own Dark Moment – a hurtful experience that influences
who we are today. Here’s an example I often share during writers workshops:
In 2007, I had a life-threatening illness. My husband, who is a family
physician, shut down his practice for a number of days, and took care
of me at home so that I didn’t have to be admitted to the hospital.
I was so sick that he rarely left my side. What we didn’t realize
at the time was that our then six-year-old daughter sat outside our
bedroom door, waiting for him to come out and tell her that I had died. 
Dark Moment? For my daughter, yes.
Six years later, she is still affected by that event. When we found
out what had happened (and we only found out about it two years ago)
we talked with her, prayed with her. The memory influences her actions
when I get sick now or when I leave for a conference. She worries. She
gets tearful. And as her parents, we have to remind her of the truth
that we can trust God with my life – and with hers.
Is it fun to weave quirky things into your novel? Absolutely! In my
just-released novel, Catch a Falling Star, both of my main characters
are Jeep lovers, a fact I used to bring them together – and push them
apart. I’ve written a character who has a linen closet full of OPI
nail polish and another who noshes on beef jerky. But I’ve learned
to go past these details and get to the heart of my characters so that
my readers care about them.
What about you? When you start your novel on page one, chapter one,
have you figured out what experiences in your main characters’ 
past have made them the (imaginary) people they are when your readers
meet them

Beth K. Vogt knows all about her plans and God’s plans not being the same. There was a time when as
a non-fiction author and editor, she said she’d never write fiction.
She’s the wife of an Air Force physician (now in solo practice) who said
she’d never marry a doctor or anyone in the military. She’s a mom of
four who said she’d never have kids. Vogt has discovered that God’s best
often waits behind the doors marked “Never.”
Released earlier this month, Catch a Falling Star is her second novel, following her fiction debut Wish You Were Here, which hit bookstore shelves last year.

Visit Beth Vogt’s website at www.bethvogt.com to learn more about her books, sign-up for her newsletter, and read her blog