Pushing Your Characters Deeper

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.

Trees Falling Unheard

Philosophers ask whether a tree falling in a forest makes a sound if no one hears it. A different question is closer to my heart: does writing matter if no one reads it? I must admit to believing in the importance of readers to completion of the art that is writing. Hungry Writers and Smart Readers. Printed words are meant to be read. But likewise songs are meant to be heard, and yet I defy anyone to dispute the value of someone singing her heart out in that lonely forest of falling trees. Would we feel differently if she were writing and left her words behind unread? I want to believe the act of writing still matters, for reasons personal, professional and profound.

Personal. At the simplest level, writing is a form of play. Remembering to Play Pretend. We do it because we love it – at least that’s how it starts. Sometimes we may lose track of that along the way. We need to keep reminding ourselves that writing is a joy. Writing can also help us to make sense of our lives. In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron suggests writing daily morning pages as a way to open up pathways from the brain to the page. Whether as journal or fiction, writing provides us with a place to air grievances, share insights, confide worries and express happiness. Putting words to our feelings gives us a sense of release.

Professional. We learn to write by writing. Leading Against Your Strengths. Writing is a muscle that requires use to grow stronger. Failure teaches us, as well as success. And practically speaking, as long as it was yours in the first place, you can always steal from yourself. That minor character you once had to abandon may turn into the protagonist of a brand new piece. With computers, you can easily keep your darlings. You never know what new work your old may inspire.

Profound. Writing fiction is an act of sympathetic imagination. The Poetry in Prose. We take on the perspective of other human beings and look at life through their eyes. We open ourselves up to possibilities that we wouldn’t otherwise face. We extend ourselves outward by sinking deeper inside. Writing as Full Body Experience. Our words may be never be read by someone else, and yet we ourselves are changed. In addition, the effort to capture insight in words is, like other arts, an outward expression of internal vision. An attempt to create something new and unique. A Still Center. With or without an audience, that’s a profoundly spiritual act.

So, does writing matter if no one reads it?

Of course it does.

Remembering To Play Pretend

If you’re a writer, then I’m guessing you played pretend when you were a kid. Your dolls had distinct voices, your trucks, loads of attitude. Your forts housed secret heroes in hidden rooms. If you had a stick, you could have a character. Some of you may have even had imaginary friends. I did. I once begged to return to my grandparents’ house because I’d forgotten to bring home my ‘visbul friends. My parents just laughed, but the next time we visited, I was relieved to find my friends hanging out in my grandparents’ basement. I never actually pictured their bodies – personality was enough. They were big talkers, my friends. I supplied all the dialogue, of course, but that wasn’t how it seemed to me then.

So much of our creative process as adults seems to center on rules and restrictions. Writers may not mean to intimidate each other into normative behavior, but sometimes I’m concerned that we do. Use third person, not first, if you’re a serious writer. Don’t vary your point of view. Never use backstory. Show, don’t tellDon’t use serial commas. Don’t forget serial commas. The list goes on. But with first drafts especially, forgetting about the rules and being willing to experiment is essential. You want to remember how to play pretend.

1. Keep asking “What if?”

“What if?” is at the heart of all games of pretend – really, of all acts of creation. The way I kicked things off as a kid was “I’ll be….” I’ll be this lion tamer – at a circus – and the lions will secretly be my friends. We’ll go on adventures. And you – you can be a monkey who turns into a human at night. You get in trouble – no, you overhear the owner. He’s a crook and no one can stop him, but us…. Writing first drafts is like that. Free-wheeling, open, changeable, exciting. You take on a part, imagine the place, the challenges, the other players, and you go. I don’t mean you can’t outline. But you don’t want to worry if you’re getting it “right.” Instead of crappy first drafts, try thinking of crazy first drafts. Glorious, all-in, no-holds-barred first drafts. Be a kid.

2. Inhabit the moment

Inhabit the moment – be fully there in your mind. When kids play pretend, they don’t let normal things break the spell. The room or yard and everything in it become part of the make-believe world. When you’re writing a first draft, try to recreate that feeling. Be present in your work. Sink all the way in. Take on the mind set of your main character and see what’s around you, sense it, feel it, notice how it affects you. Truly hear what others say. Write it all down. This is your raw material – you can shape it later.

3. Trust yourself

As writers, we have to cycle through more than one stage in our work. We need to be open to criticism – to hear what others tell us – to continue to learn. We need to edit our own work with honesty and detachment. We need to be professionals who hold ourselves up to high standards and who can handle the business aspects of our careers with aplomb. But when it comes to first drafts, it’s time to put all that aside. We can’t edit before we’ve even let ourselves create. We have to remind ourselves that this is something we love. Trust your own talent. Let yourself be young.

You may just find the only hard part is typing fast enough.

Does a way you played as a kid ever come to mind when you write? Please feel free to comment.