Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Getting to Know Your Characters

Today I had a heart-to-heart. Not with my husband, or with my mom. No, this was a heart-to-heart of another kind. As in, it was entirely one-sided.

I spent the afternoon getting to know a handful of people that exist only in my own mind. I'm thirty-thousand words into their story and, although I've gotten to know them quite well these past few months, I felt it was time to dig deeper. Address the tough subjects. Get to know each others' dark sides.

Many writers prefer to do this in the planning stages of their novels, but for me it had to happen after I'd jumped into their story, getting to know them as I wrote about them. Much in the same way you get to know someone face-to-face, I had to learn about my characters somewhat superficially before I could get to know them intimately. Now that we are a third of the way through our journey together, we're past the formalities.

To begin, I asked my two main characters and my five key supporting characters what they were most afraid of. I addressed one character at a time and wrote their responses in their individual voices. My fingers flew over the keys as my characters began speaking to me. They told me their fears, what they want most, their regrets, and what makes them happy.

Then I asked them to tell me one thing they always wanted to do but never had the courage. I asked what drives them and inspires them to do the things they do. I ended with what they were most excited about in looking toward the future.

Am I a madwoman for caring so much about people that don't exist? Maybe. But that's what we writers do. We invent people that seem real. So real, in fact, that we introduce them to the world hoping others will love them as much as we do.  

Now that I've had a heart-to-heart with my characters, I understand them so much better. I care about them--even the not-so-nice ones. I get why they've been acting the way they have up to this point, and I can throw obstacles in their way that will help them grow. I'm also beginning to see who might surprise me and why.

I'm not worried about inconsistencies in the part of their story that is already complete--I can address those in my second draft. They wouldn't be as real as they are now if I'd done this exercise before writing the first word of their story. Planning and writing a novel is a fluid process. The two need to be happening simultaneously throughout the first draft.

Perhaps I really am slipping by degrees from reality, given the amount of time I dedicate to understanding my handful of fictional characters. But their story is better off for it and, hopefully, will soon be vetted enough that my new friends will be ready to meet the world.

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