Meet Your Characters

I’m working with a couple of new  clients as they take the next step in writing their first books. As is common with many new writers, they have an idea for a story, and have thought out where they want the story to go, but their characters are cardboard cutouts, useful to them only for furthering the story. So far, they have no idea how rich the characters can be, or the depth they can add to a story.

What they don’t yet understand is that if they want readers to care about the story, the readers must first care about the characters, and what happens to them in the story. Who are these people, I ask. The reply is basically, well, this is the main character, this is another character, and this is another. They have no real idea who the characters are, what their backgrounds are. Without knowing that, they can’t write honest actions and reactions for these characters.

I tell my clients that they must let the characters BE. Don’t have them talk and react as you need just to continue the story. Allow your characters to surprise you. You don’t have to let them derail your story, but allow them to speak their minds, to react honestly, and you’ll see some great developments in your story.

One of the exercises I do in my classroom and with my freelance students is to have them write two scenes: one is a conversation between two characters, and one is an interview between the writer and a character. That’s it. That’s all the info I give them.

Once they’ve written the scenes, we talk about what works well, and what doesn’t. The most frequent problem is that the author has dictated the scene. Well, of course, you say, the author is dictating, because the author is the writer. But that’s not what I mean. In order for the conversation to work, the author must let go of the reins. The characters must be allowed to wander off topic, if to do so will tell us something about that character. The author must be willing to be surprised by the character.

I’ve written characters who I thought I knew, only to find out, once I let them have their heads, that I didn’t really know them at all. One character in a story of mine, a wife named Mamie, was supposed to be a supporting character. It was her husband I was interested in. But it turned out, Mamie didn’t want to be a supporting character. She had things to say. She had things to do. She very quickly over-shadowed her husband, and I think the story was the better for it. Mamie surprised me, once I quit shoving words in her mouth and telling her what to do.

In the next segment of this post, I’ll show how this exercise is handy for getting your characters speak in their own voices.

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