Let Your Characters Speak

In my previous post, I explained that many new writers don’t know how to let their characters develop into full-blown beings. I suggested that allowing the characters to speak is an excellent way to finding out who your characters are. Here is an exercise I use with my writing clients.

What a character doesn’t say can be just as important as what the character does say. In the conversation, if a mother feels she is being manipulated by her teenage daughter, she doesn’t have to call the daughter on it, which is what many new writers would have their characters do. Instead, once she recognizes what’s going on, she might stop talking. Not say a single word. What happens then with the daughter? She can’t ask outright if she’s been discovered as a manipulator, and she won’t know whether to keep on the original track. Suddenly, her wheels are spinning in the mud. And her mother hasn’t had to say a thing. There is immediate tension there.

In the interview process, most of my students initially use the exercise to introduce their characters, almost a word-for-word recitation of their character descriptions and bios (if they’d bothered to create those before they began writing). The interviewer is simply a springboard for revealing character. Most writers are surprised when I “bleed red ink” all over their first drafts. But I explain that this hasn’t been an interview at all, in most cases, since the interviewer is simply feeding the character openings for plugging in information.

For example, here’s a common kind of exchange:

  • Interviewer: Can you tell me a bit about what makes you tick?
  • Character: Well, when my parents died in a car accident when I was little, I vowed to do something with my life that would make them proud of me. That’s why I’ve started this project where we teach art to special-needs children. It’s our belief that these children need an outlet for their creativity, a way to express themselves. I can tell you stories about some of the students…..(and off the character goes, outlining her successes).

For the reader, this provides information, but there’s no drama, no tension…no interest. It’s like reading a newspaper article about something that happened. They get hearsay, but have no experience of the event.

How much more powerful would it be if the interview went like this:

  • Interviewer: Can you tell me a bit about what makes you tick?
  • Character: Tick? That’s an odd question.
  • [I]: Is it? Isn’t there something that drives your life? Makes you who you are?
  • [C]: What do you mean?
  • [I]: Well, you’re the first twenty-five-year-old woman I’ve ever met who set up a school of art for special-needs children, working with no funds. What made you choose that as a life goal?
  • [C]: I guess it started when my parents died in an accident when I was little. I decided then to do something with my life to make them proud of me. That’s–
  • [I]: How old were you when they died?
  • [C] (taken aback a bit by the interruption): Five and a half.
  • [I]: That’s awfully young. And you knew then that you wanted your life’s work to make them proud?
  • [C]: Well, not then, of course. As you say, I was young. As I got older, I realized it was important to me.
  • [I]: Why?
  • [C]: Why? Well, doesn’t every child want their parents to be proud of them?
  • [I] (ignoring the question): Do you remember your parents?
  • [C] (pausing): Yes. Of course. Well, as well as a five-year-old can remember parents after twenty years.
  • [I]: Can you still see their faces?
  • [C]: Not really, no. I mean, I have photographs, of course. But my own memories, no. They’re more just impressions, rather than memories.
  • [I]: What impressions?
  • [C]: I remember my dad’s smile.
  • [I]: Did he smile a lot?
  • [C]: No. In fact, it was rare to see it.
  • [I]: Do you remember a particular time when he did smile?
  • [C]: Clearly. I’d painted a picture for him. It was probably horrible, as only finger-paintings can be, but it was my version of Rapunzel, with the girl’s long hair falling out of a castle window.
  • [I]: But your father liked it?
  • [C]: Yes. (She pauses.) I remember that he pulled me against his chest as he held the picture out at arm’s length to examine it, and then he kissed my cheek and smiled. If he said anything, I don’t recall. But I still see that smile.
  • [I]: In your mind’s eye?
  • [C]: Yes. And, oddly enough, every time  a parent picks up their child at the center and smiles at what they’ve drawn that day.
  • [I]: So, the therapy isn’t just for the children, is it?
  • [C]: You know, I’d never thought of it that way.

This is pretty much the same information given to the reader in both instances, but how much better do you know the character in the second example? You’ve experienced the information, not just had it handed over to you in a neat little package. Of course, the interview could have gone in several other directions, but that’s the risk and the possibility when you, as the author, allow the characters to respond truthfully to the questions asked, especially when the questions are probing, and not just lob balls to be hit out of the park.

One of my constant refrains to my writing students is this: give your characters room to breathe.

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