Character profiles are great for first drafts. I fill out a ton of those for each character. I cast my characters with favorite TV and movie stars. I create playlists for each character. These profiles create character shells, but rarely do they ever help me create living, breathing characters with beating hearts.
Sometimes, to get at the heart of my characters, I have to do a lot of writing that never ends up in the manuscript. This type of writing often dissuades writers because it’s work that doesn’t seem to go anywhere or increase the word count. But it’s worth taking the time and effort to go “off-script” so your characters feel like living beings instead of a creation compiled of character sketches and previous novel drafts.
At the Craft on Draft reading series, Jennie Wood* revealed that she kept a diary in the voice of Tara Parks, a girl in love with the protagonist of her YA novel, A Boy Like Me. She wrote in Tara’s diary daily while working on an early draft — and she read from it at the event.
Even though Tara is not a point-of-view character in Jennie’s novel, her presence is a powerful counterpoint to the protagonist, Peyton, and is a constant for him, someone who gets him even when he sometimes doesn’t get himself. Inhabiting Tara helped Jennie to better understand Peyton — who he was and how he reacted to the community around him.
It’s easy to focus all of your attention on the main character, but the main character needs interactions and other people to trigger, excite, motivate, and elevate them. Even Tom Hanks’s character needed someone (or rather, the personification of an object) when stranded on a desert island in Castaway. Because of Wilson, his trusty volleyball sidekick, audiences were emotionally connected to the story more than if the focus were solely about physical survival.
Tell Me How That Makes You Feel
Another Novel Incubator classmate, Marc Foster, created character therapy sessions as a way to work through his protagonist’s growing disconnect with his cousin, Benny, and the increasing work conflicts that had arisen due to their clashing secular and orthodox beliefs:
Like a character diary, character therapy sessions feel immediate and in the moment for characters, and has helped me when I’m trying to figure out why a character reacted in a certain way in a particular scene — in the same way that individual therapy sessions often focus on isolated events to get at the underlying issues when those issues (i.e. plot) feel too big, buried, or intimidating to address. Not only does this help me figure out who my characters are, it helps me work through plot issues as well.
Hello, I’m Barbara Walters
Character diaries and therapy sessions are great for getting to know a character. But some of my characters are real assholes. Back in December 2011, I documented an instance of this on my tumblr blog. My protagonist was still being an asshole a year later, even after I rewrote the entire novel because she refused to get married. (You can’t bend your characters to your will, you just can’t.)
The protagonist of my first novel has always been hard for me to get at for some reason. I tried to put her into therapy like Yotam, but she would rather take the kitchen shears to her tongue than talk about how she’s feeling:
Sometimes, when I can’t see through the story and things feel muddled and my characters aren’t cooperating, I pretend that I am Barbara Walters** and I’m trying to get the real, “behind the scenes” story from my characters. The difference between therapy and interviews is the same for characters as it is for people: one is personal and private, one is public and in the spotlight. Not every character or person reacts the same to these different approaches.
After therapy failed, I tried to interview my main character after the main conflict occurred and the story ended, much like I had done with her friend, Jody, who talked for pages and pages. Emily? No dice. She didn’t want to talk about what had happened when she and Jody were younger. Finally, I interviewed Emily as an old woman, when her inhibitions were lower and most people who knew her and about what had happened, such as her parents, had died. Bingo. I finally got her talking.
She had a lot to say after that.
In Cara Wood’s blog post, Lessons Learned: Imagining Science Fiction Settings, she suggested creating a daily schedule that “tackle(s) the breakfast to bedtime routine.” The focus of the post is science fiction settings, so there’s a lot of benefit to outlining how the “real world” varies from an “other world.” But there are benefits to all genres, even the mundane life details of contemporary protagonists. A daily schedule provides an intricate view of your characters in their natural habitats, whether it’s a city neighborhood, a small town, or a different planet. What happens to that schedule after your story’s catalyst or inciting incident occurs? I used this exercise for my second novel to figure out how a woman reacts when a coworker/lover goes missing: her personal life as well as her work life is rocked. There’s no place for her to go that doesn’t remind her of the missing lover. A schedule helped me to understand exactly how entwined their routines were and how her world is upended.
Alternatively, if a character doesn’t keep a schedule, that tells you a lot about them as well.
Of all the ways that my girlfriend supports my writing efforts, the most ridiculous is when I ask her to gossip about my characters with me. I’m fully aware of how stupid this sounds, but it’s an important part of my process. And it’s hard to gossip alone, out loud, without people thinking that you’re mental.
As we walk through the neighborhood or sit on the couch after dinner, I try to imagine what I would say about my characters if I worked with them or went to class with them. I go off on my characters like they are the worst people I know. Sometimes, they just make me crazy.
I can’t help but exclaim, “What the hell is wrong with her? Why would she do that?” On the street, passerby often give me side eye. And in these instances, I wish the character was real so I could deliver a slap upside the head. This also, in a weird way, helps me to consider the stakes: why would you slap a character upside the head for anything less than something incredibly stupid or risky or dangerous? If their behavior is easily dismissed, then I consider whether or not it’s necessary as a scene.
And if all that doesn’t work, you could try beating the hell out of your manuscript and see what happens.
If all of this sounds like the work of a crazy person, it’s because it is. Who else but writers regularly talk to and about fictional characters as if they are real people or ask after the characters in their friends’ novels? (I sometimes email Marc and ask him how Yotam is doing.) We spend so much time with these characters, it’s hard not to think of them as real people.
If a character is well drawn, I don’t mind if a novel’s plot is a little thin, or if it’s a little slow in the middle. I’m forgiving of those things because I struggle with these issues myself. But if a character feels thin, I’m out.
All these crazy exercises are what breathes life into those character sketches and creates resonance for readers. Whatever it takes to get a reader’s blood pumping or tears flowing. I think it’s worth the work.
* Thanks to Jennie and Marc for sharing their insights and screenshots.
** Yes, I know how all of this makes me sound.