So said my friend Tanya in this blogpost a few days ago. I posted a brief comment there, but since it was something I’d been thinking about a lot myself recently, I decided to share a more thorough explanation with all you fine people.
You’re writing a story, and it’s coming along steadily. Not good, but not bad either.
Then it happens. A flash of inspiration. Words that are not your own. And your character blurts out something so uniquely them that your fingers stall on the keys; you’re astounded by your own genius.
It’s a good feeling. Bad news is, these moments can be few and far in-between. And once you get a taste of it, you’ll never stop yearning for those words that surface all on their own.
So how do we reclaim some of this feeling when we’re struggling to understand our characters? Well… Girls, any ideas?
Viss: The answer’s simple enough. Talk to us.
Ambria: Indeed. How would you expect us to cooperate with your plans if you don’t even take the time to understand our position?
Shaysha: Yeah. I mean, I keep telling ya’. I’m not stupid enough to risk my life for Brihn, even if I do lo-- … o///o
Corliss: Oooooh… XD *insane little chuckle* Someone’s got a secret. I’m good with those. Just ask Tristan. Or her little rebel friend in the stables. Kept his secret for a long time. ^^
Starting to see what I mean? Viss is very straight-forward, and a bit superior. Ambria is very proper. Shaysha uses a more casual tone, and Corliss… Well, Corliss is just plain crazy. :) (And I love her for it. Her backstory is going to be my NaNoWriMo novel this year). Four characters from four very different novels. Each with their own way of responding to a situation.
Start a conversation with your characters. It doesn’t have to be a scene from your book. It can be a conversation about anything. Talk about your day. Don’t just listen. Talk back.
I’ve been trying this method myself, recently, so here’s some bits and pieces of my conversation with a character from one of the short stories I’ve been polishing. I set it up like a chat, just like you’d have with anyone online. Comments in green.
StickyFingers79: Greetings, internet person. What’s up with you? [Just coming up with a username for your characters can be interesting. Even if they live in a world without internet access, try to think about what they would choose for their name if they did.]
SP: Nothing much. Got a novel I’m working on and some other stuff. You?
SF: You a writer? That’s cool. As for me… I guess the same thing that’s ‘up’ with everybody else.
SP: The star thing? Yeah, lol, I guess. I write scifi, so it’s weird to be… You know. Living it.
SP: You can laugh about it? Not many people can. [Lead the conversation. You can put in things about yourself, to keep the atmosphere normal, but also ask a lot of questions, like you’re trying to get them to think about stuff. Because that will make you think about stuff.]
SF: Ah… Yeah. Well. What else can I do?
[The conversation went on, just like any other chat, and I found out more about this character’s sense of humor, her mom, her tendencies to skip school. But the real fun began when I added a character from a fantasy short story.]
SwimmerseyesOO: Hey, what’s up?
SP: NM. U?
SF: World Ending. U?
SE8: Creature taking over my village. Idiots.
SP: What kind of creature?
SE8: The kind that’ll be dead soon if it don’t knock it off.
SF: Lol. Go after the star-killer next.
SE8: Sure, if I can find it, lol. I have bad eyes.
SF: No prob, no prob. Our scientists can’t find it either. *facepalm*
[LATER, the conversation turned deeper.]
SF: I don’t need help. I feel fine the way I am. I like stealing. I’m good at it. But people don’t get that. My mom thinks I need to be ‘fixed’.
SE8: At least there are people who would actually try to fix you. Peeps in my village were clueless even before the creature’s spell took hold. I mean, I’ve always kind of been on the edge. Like, I’m blind. What are they supposed to do with me? What am I going to do for a job someday? That’s why I like to swim. You don’t really need to see for that.
[END OF SELECTION]
See how little I had to prompt the conversation toward the end? All of a sudden, these characters from very different scenarios were turning into best friends. They continued to talk, getting to know each other, discussing school, their communities, the way they feel about everything under the sun.
Will everything be incorporated into your story? Probably not. But all that information will be in your head, shaping their every action.
Will it always be easy, figuring out how your character will respond to a certain situation? Probably not. But this exercise might help you to pin down parts of a certain character that you never noticed before.
Will you always be able to make them sound the way they would in-story? Probably not. Even in the above bits, you can see that I slipped into more modern speech for SwimmerseyesOO. But it’ll get you thinking. How would this character say this? Why doesn’t this figure of speech work for them? What can I use in place of this word?
Maybe it’s hard to understand from reading all the little pieces of my conversation. But that’s the beauty of it. Start a conversation that only you will understand in its entirety. Let the characters talk, and see what comes to the surface.
Do you talk with your characters? On a regular basis? On paper, so you can remember the conversation later? Have characters from different stories begun to converse out of the blue? And how did it help you get to know your characters?
EDIT: Also, feel free to introduce your characters in the comments. Also, if you'd like to hear more from my characters, I share a tumblr with them at http://thesilentpages.tumblr.com/