About Sherlock and Watson, about Scarlett and Rhett, Odysseus and Penelope that hooks us into their stories and keeps us there? They feel real, living and breathing, singing and ranting, no matter how long ago they were written. How do we write characters who feel as real as that?
The answer is as simple as we are: let your fictional characters develop in believable ways and your readers will love them.
Where do we start?
The better you know the internal worlds of your characters before you start, the easier you’ll find writing your draft. It can even come to feel as if the characters are writing it for you.
Chatting with your characters on the page or screen about how they feel about themselves can feel like a lot of work, or even a waste of time. Why not just get cracking and find out as you go? But being with your characters, getting to know them from the inside out, does many great things for us:
- It becomes obvious pretty quickly what drives your character and right there is the engine of your story.
- It’s a lovely, relaxed way to loosen up your writing muscles. You’re welcoming your story, letting it come to you free of pressure. That makes it the perfect way to bypass any block lurking around. Writing is always better than not writing.
- The more of it you do, the more your characters will reveal – things you never foresaw – with greater depth and candour than you imagined. The most exciting moment in writing (apart from your first royalties) is when your writing takes wing and you write flowingly. This written interview technique is one of the best ways I know to get yourself there.
- You will find out how your character speaks. Everyone’s accent, provenance, education, world view, age and temperament are all there in what we say and how we say it. This technique will shortcut you to much better dialogue.
- In this relaxed zone, you can – paradoxically – produce chunks of your best writing, sequences that can go straight into your book. Picasso said that when inspiration came, it would find him in his studio. This is you being in your studio.
I don’t mean you should chuck all your plans out of the window. One of the great synergies in any creative activity is the one between planning and the life the thing takes on for itself. It’s a complex game and we all play it in different ways. But playwrights think nothing of exploring their characters for weeks before they write a single scene. Unless the playwright knows the characters deeply, an actor can’t be expected to guess how a character will enter a scene or begin to speak in a way that will convince a stranger. I believe that the same is true of fiction. Readers open a book, read a line or two and immediately feel whether they’re in competent hands. I believe that the most crucial factor in conjuring that sense of comfort is knowing your characters.
Stage 1 – the character interview:
Set aside some time with plenty of A4 and a working pen, or your favourite screen, whatever works best for you. You should be somewhere private and comfortable if you can. Home is nice if it’s peaceful. Cafes and pubs are good too. Waiting rooms in hospitals and airports or waiting for your local GP can be strangely inspiring. Proust wrote in bed. Whatever works for you.
Limber up with a few minutes of free writing just for yourself about your day, your worry list or ‘why am I writing this book’. Then invite your characters – one at a time – to come and talk to you. Chatting to your characters in your head only gets you part of the way; there’s an extra magic that happens while you record it on your page or screen.
Try and describe your character doing something utterly normal like getting off public transport or out of a car, walking in the street, going into their place of work, taking off their outer garments and going in to where they work. Write as if you’re a stranger watching and listening. How do they sit, stand, how do they move in their clothes and footwear? How do other people react around them? Character is there in the details.
Take your time. You’re after much more than a list.
Next, still catching the answers on the page or screen as fully as possible, try and approach your fictional character and have a chat. Don’t be afraid to be as nosey as you like, and to let your character move you emotionally. You can even get angry with your character, why not?
Let rip together as if you’re best mates, that’s where the best stuff is.
Above all, allow her/him to speak back to you in her/his own voice with whatever shyness, bossiness, whatever else comes naturally. The moment when the character joins in won’t always come immediately. If it’s stalling, try imagining you’ve just met at a fictional party and let the character talk.
Be as thorough as you can. If a question is turning up interesting things, let it roll for as long as you have time. Nobody else knows what you’re doing – they don’t really notice somebody writing in a café, it’s as if we’re not there – so it you can go as deep as you like.
What you’re after is the moment when the character starts surprising you, telling you things you didn’t know were going to come. Push on from there. That’s where the gold dust is, where the writing has its own life, a richer one.
I hope you’ll look up an hour or so later and not know where the time’s gone. You’ll have written pages and pages, feel excited as well as tired and above all, released. And you won’t be sure where it all came from, some of it might even feel as if it was ‘channelled’. Don’t worry now about it being perfect, you’re discovering your character and through that, your story too.
Next week we’ll start on my questionnaire for your characters and it’s not quite like anybody else’s…
Have a happy writing week!