Characters are tricky. You’d think they’d do whatever you want. You’d think they’d be as easy to write up as a list. Strong but vulnerable, damaged but tries to hide it, wants something (of course), and has to fight for it. Okay, go. That’s the kind of start that leaves us staring at the screen. Characters are made up of specifics. They look and act a certain way. Their voice reflects their history, as well as their attitude. They have dreams and carry pain. To be authentic, their actions and decisions need to be true to who they are. Writers often begin with some insights about their characters, but may have trouble fleshing them out more fully. A few key techniques can help you to crack them open.
1. Asking Questions
In his lectures at Off Campus Writers’ Workshop, Fred Shafer – literary editor, writer, and writing teacher par excellence – suggests that writers should try to move in and out of their characters: outside to assess and ask questions, and then inside to find answers. He is talking about probing questions, the same as you might ask a loved one in trouble. For example, I like to ask my characters: What are you thinking about? What worries you? Why do you seem to be in pain? What are you hoping for? Why does it matter to you? And perhaps most important in my experience: What haven’t you told me yet? You also want to ask them things more particular to your piece. The answers to all these questions will push your characters deeper and open up new territory for your story. And even if some of the answers don’t end up on the page – they may form part of your Hemingway iceberg – they will increase your understanding of the characters and lead you to places that otherwise you might never discover.
2. Taking on the Part
Conveying character requires empathy, and even personal identification. I write about how to engage your sympathetic imagination in Writing as a Full Body Experience. Some writers may find it helpful to approach this as a type of acting. You take on the part of the character in your mind, holding their attitudes and feelings inside yourself, as well as an awareness of what’s recently happened to them in the story and whatever is relevant from what’s happened to them in the past. I know of writers who even like to throw on a hat or scarf as if wearing a costume. Sanford Meisner, a pioneer of method acting, describes acting as “living truthfully under imaginary circumstances.” I would apply the same concept to writing fiction.
3. Watching for Clues
I believe the subconscious is deeply engaged in the crafting of fiction. The truths that pull at us, the characters that attract us, the problems that engage us – they resonate with us for reasons. We may not always know, or even need to know, what they are. Intuition comes out of this relationship between writers and the work that calls to us. Sometimes things we’ve written without conscious thought are just sitting there, waiting for us to dig in. I mention in Watchman: Cynicism or Hope that Harper Lee left herself a clue in the earlier novel – about perpetually making secret trips to the past – that should have caught her attention, even if her editor hadn’t made her rewrite her book to do that very thing. As you review your work, keep asking yourself: What did I mean when I wrote that? Is there something else there? Try free-writing a new paragraph and see what else comes to mind.
Pushing your characters deeper can be scary for writers. The questions you ask may be ones you’re not prepared to answer in your own life. The part you take on may take you someplace you’re not wanting to go. The clues you leave behind may be unconscious for good reason. In fiction, we can reshape the hurtful and repurpose the ugly, but that doesn’t mean it’s always easy to keep our perspective. But I think if you’ve begun to put it on the page, your own mind believes you’re ready. You may also find truth, and beauty you didn’t realize was there.
A thoughtful analysis. I’ve heard the part about asking questions before but you helped me appreciate it.
Thank you, Lois. Sometimes when I ask questions like these of my characters, the answers don’t come right away – but when they do, they almost always bring new energy to the piece. A nice surprise!
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