What Three Things?

There are several ways to develop characters, but this is one I’ve heard from several writers. It was author Chantelle Atkins who encouraged me to write it down. 

The idea is to answer the following:

  1. What three things does the character want?
  2. What three things does the character fear?
  3. What three things are stopping them from getting what they want?
  4. In what three ways is the character unreliable?

Having to think of three things rather than just one means you can’t escape down the easiest path. This helps make them more three-dimensional. It also provides ideas for what might create tension in the plot and how the character needs to develop. 

I’m currently working on the sequel to The Wrong Sort to Die, set in 1911. If I give one answer for each question about Dr Margaret Demeray, I’d end up with:

  • She wants to progress her career
  • She fears being passed over because of her gender
  • She’s hindered by a society which inhibits women pursuing careers particularly if they marry
  • She’s unreliable because she tends to lose her temper and speak/act before she listens/thinks

Thinking about it harder the three answers for each question would be:

  • Margaret wants to progress her career
  • She wants to be in a loving, equal relationship (and maybe have a little romance) as well as have a career
  • She wants equality not just for women but for everyone, regardless of gender, class or race
  • She fears being passed over because of her gender
  • She fears living alone forever
  • She fears boredom
  • She’s hindered by a society which inhibits women pursuing careers particularly if they marry
  • She’s hindered by a society in which someone (particularly female) is more likely to be called immoral because of perceived sexual behaviour than because of actual abuse of power. 
  • She’s hindered by 1911 modes of communication
  • She’s unreliable because she tends to lose her temper and speak/act before she listens/thinks
  • She’s unreliable because she protects herself from being hurt by not trusting people who love her.
  • She’s unreliable because wanting to support the underdog makes her easy to manipulate

Now Margaret is in a situation where she not only has to choose where her life is going, but also has to convince Fox that what appears to be an accident is not just murder, but connected to espionage.

What if tackling both these problems forces her into an alliance with Miss X whose wants, fears, hindrances and unreliabilities don’t quite align with Margaret’s?

  • Miss X wants to progress her career
  • She wants to be respected
  • She wants equality not just for women but for everyone regardless of gender, class or race (but she thinks there needs to be a long, slow process to get there)
  • She fears being passed over because of her gender
  • She fears dying alone
  • She fears disruption and change
  • She’s hindered by a society which inhibits women pursuing careers particularly if they marry
  • She’s hindered by women like Margaret who are trying to change society rapidly 
  • She’s hindered by knowing she will not be forgiven if she makes a mistake
  • She’s unreliable because she would rather avoid risk than take a necessary action
  • She’s unreliable because she hasn’t dealt with how she feels about choosing a career over marriage
  • She’s unreliable because she can’t admit when she makes a mistake

What clashes will occur if they have to work together? Will they hinder each other? Or will they, in fact, help each other? 

Although I’m talking about characters who are complete figments of my imagination, today, I thought about whether those four questions could have any relevance outside a fictional setting. I think they do.

If the last few years have shown us anything, it’s how depressingly easy it is for people to become polarised in their views. 

I haven’t navel-gazed for a number of years but do think that periodically re-examining my views is worth doing. After all, if they’re valid, they should be able to take some honest scrutiny. 

I wonder if part of the reason it’s so easy for us not only to end up on opposite sides of a fence but at the far side of our personal paddock is because if we do ask ourselves questions, we only ask the first three and tend to stop at one answer for each. That way, the chances are we’ll disagree.

I want…

I’m afraid of…

I’m hindered by…

If we think of three answers to each question however, the chances are that we’ll agree on more than we think.

And secondly, if we’re all honest about how, why and in what way we’re unreliable, maybe we can look at both our own views and others’ more honestly and with more depth.

It’s the only way we can start to discuss how to move forward and not back, make things better for everyone, not worse.

Going back to Margaret and Miss X, who knows how they’ll influence each other as the book unfolds. 

Will Miss X convince Margaret that she should give up hopes of love? Not in a million years. Will Margaret convince Miss X that she should chain herself to the railings of Downing Street? Probably not. 

But they do have three things which they (and I) definitely agree about: 

  • After a hard day at work, no woman has the energy to cook anything but toast, and potentially the worst thing about married life would be a man demanding a fiddly meal or worse still, cooking it himself using ALL the pans and utensils.
  • A woman living on her own needs a cat to come home to.
  • It definitely wasn’t an accident and if no-one pays attention soon, someone else is going to die. 

Words copyright 2021 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Photograph https://www.dreamstime.com/jrabelo_info

An Interview with the Laundry Fairy

I am sitting opposite Paula’s laundry fairy and she..

Excuse me, I’m not her fairy. She is my person.

Aw that’s sweet, you look on her as family.

No, I mean she belongs to me not the other way around.

A bit like a pet?

More like an experimental subject to be honest.

Ah. Well to continue. You… may I know your name?

Only if you want to die horribly.

Oh. Ahem. Well may I say you’re looking resplendent in an outfit which … may I call it unique?

Call it what you like. It’s the best I can do using the stuff I find in Paula’s cupboards. Some of her clothes are that old they need carbon dating.

You mean you’ve woven it yourself out of her cast-offs?

Ha! Me? Weave? Nah, I got someone to do it for me. And they’re not exactly cast-offs, more stuff she didn’t keep an eye on.

Things she’d put in storage?

Where would be the fun in that? No. Things she put down for five minutes. Watching her pull her hair out thinking she’s gone doollally and trying to find stuff I’ve magicked off when she’s in a hurry is almost as much of a laugh as moving her keys.

I see. Anyway, I must say you look a little more robust than I thought a fairy would.

Are you saying I look fat?

No, no – you can put the sink plunger down – not fat at all, far from it. More… athletic. You must work out a lot. And those tattoos, dead impressive. What are they again?

Crossed odd socks on one arm and a mangle-in-a-tangle on the other. Do you want to see the one on my…

Er, another time perhaps. Shall we get on with the questions sent in by our readers? 

If you must.

Do you do your own dishes after meals?

What sort of question is that? What do you think dishwasher fairies are for?

There are dishwasher fairies?

Of course there are. It’s a modern thing. They’re sort of a cross between a brownie-gone-bad mixed with a laundry fairy. Brill combination. They’re either so efficient they dissolve the pattern off the plates or they save up the gunk in the filter and spew it out over everything and then break the machine. If they time it right, they can do it just before a public holiday or when guests are coming. It’s ace.

Apart from the humans, are you all alone here? Well obviously not, you’ve already mentioned the dishwasher fairy.

She’s a sort of second cousin. If you think my tattoos are impressive, you should see her piercings. Then there’s the garden gnomes. They’re sort of relations on the other side. They lie in the grass and shove things in the lawnmower. They also go slug-racing, stamp on flowers and encourage the weeds. Or at least they do in this garden. The only thing they won’t mess with is Paula’s husband’s chilli plants. My word. Uncle Joe took a bite out of one and burst into flames. Had to tip a pint of milk over his head to put him out. I suppose I ought to mention the book imps. They’re a bit useless as they tend to get sidetracked with reading things, but they erase things from diaries and calendars, and they move books, office projects and homework about when they’re bored. Usually on Sunday night or before a deadline. And then there’s the goodie two-shoe brownies. Well there used to be. Now there’s only one brownie left. He’s called Aelfnod and I had him nicely under control till she met him and gave him a home in the attic. The others moved out in disgust. This is one terribly untidy family. Even the spiders don’t think this house is much of a challenge.

Do you put both socks on first, or one sock, one shoe?

What kind of weirdo puts on one sock, one shoe? And you’re talking like you only need two socks. I put all the socks on at the same time. And they’re all odd.

Do you have any pets?

I’ve got Aelfnod. Or I will when I can work out how to get in the attic.

Who does your laundry?

Paula does of course. And then I nabs it after. Just when she thinks she’s found the missing socks and goes to find their partners, I nips in and grabs them. And anything else I fancy the look of.

Are those your real teeth?

Excuse me? What sort of people are your readers? Of course they’re not my own teeth. That would be weird. They’re dentures made from the ones the tooth fairy gets. Not that the tooth fairy’s been round for a few years. And I never did get a full set of 56, cos the littlest human went all cynical on the tooth-fairy and tried to trick her. Never saw another penny for her teeth after that. Hah. But then I didn’t get the teeth either.

Do you recycle?

Well here I am wearing an outfit made from odd socks. And you won’t believe what the dishwasher fairy can make with the odd teaspoons, apart from use them as earrings that is. Mind blowing, I’m telling ya. Last time we managed to break both the washing machine and dishwasher at the same time, we took a weekend break sailing in a boat made from odd bits of plastic container, odd socks and odd teaspoons. Lost them afterwards but hey.

Would you take chicken soup to your neighbour if he was sick?

Aelfnod the brownie? Huh. Only so I could dunk him in it.

If you could go back in time, where would you go?

Two Saturdays ago when I managed to sneak a ball point pen into the shirt wash. Oh the wailing when the washing machine stopped working as the pen disembowelled itself and bit of it slipped into the drum and oh you should have seen the pretty blue patterns on those lovely cotton garments! Lovely splodges just where they could be seen by everyone! And then the arguing over who’d put the pen in the washing machine and whose fault it was and the researching for stain removers and the soakings in vinegar and bicarbonate of soda and all in vain. Oh that was a happy day.

If you could get rid of one disease, what would it be?

Lady writers. Paula put me in a book she wrote with Val Portelli called Weird and Peculiar Tales.

Did she write libellous things about you?

Oh no, it was all true. But she made it look like I was the bad guy. Me? I just like a bit of a laugh. Anyway, gotta go, I’ve got a tissue to put in the pocket of some black trousers before the dark wash is put in. And I’m feeding up one of the spiders so he can chew his way into the attic. I’m sure Aelfnod must be all lonely up there. See ya round. Nice socks by the way. I’d keep an eye on them if I were you.  I likes them.

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Book by Paula Harmon & Val Portelli

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(c) Paula Harmon 2018.  Words and photograph copywrite Paula Harmon and not to be reproduced without her express permission or without credit given.