The Insecure Writer’s Support Group
The question this month is: Has your writing ever taken you by surprise? For example, a positive and belated response to a submission you’d forgotten about or an ending you never saw coming?
The Surprising Secret of Developing Characters
I’m such a plotter one would think that I’m never surprised. The truth is that with every story I’m always surprised. The words that come out of my characters’ mouths are smart, engaging, and laugh out loud funny. So much so, I’m usually laughing aloud while writing, with my laughter surprising those around me whether other writers at a write-in or strangers in a coffee shop.
Often, I find my characters’ banter doesn’t require tags because the characters each have a distinctive voice, so it’s easy to know who is talking. The advantage is because we know who is speaking tags aren’t required. Thus, the writing becomes action and dialogue, with some narrative now and then rather than all the time. Even then, I try to keep the narrative down to a minimum.
Once I know the bare-bones outline of a story—how it begins and how it ends—I spend a lot of time finding out who my characters are. Many writers will interview their characters wanting to know about their background: where they went to school, what’s their favorite color, favorite music, favorite TV program, and so forth.
To me, while I want to know my character’s physicalities—such as hair and eye color, height, their job, their tangible goal—it’s more important for me to know their pain, their wound(s), the deep dark secret they don’t want anyone knowing.
To discover this information, I become the character. I do so by writing character journals. I start out saying my (their) name, where they’re from, and so forth. These various details will take up half a page and then, suddenly, I (the character) will say something that begs a question of what do you mean by that, or what happened, or how did that make you feel? That’s when the character goes deep. By now, I’m talking (writing) in that character’s voice. My voice and my thoughts are no longer my own, but theirs. I’m seeing through their eyes, feeling their pain. And, the writing becomes a stream of consciousness in their desire to reveal everything that hurts. Everything that up until this moment, has remained a secret that they can’t live with anymore.
By the time they’ve run out words, I’m holding three-to-five single-spaced typed pages. I have their goals, their essence, their true character—not the one that others in the book get to see and have seen forever, but the one they struggle to overcome.
It’s that pain that drives the character, which in turn drives their response in word and deed, which then drives the plot forward. It’s these elements that then help me plot out the middle, the important emotional points that spin the story into different directions.
It’s that pain that becomes the character arc, the thing that the character must overcome in order to win the girl, get the job, get the prize, and to finally obtain self-respect. It’s the thing the character will no longer have to face in their future.
It’s character pain that attracts readers. They want to see how a character will resolve their wound because that wound could be their own.
It’s character pain that engages readers, that makes them turn the pages. The suffering, the action, the pain.
It’s the pain overcome that provides a satisfying end to any story regardless of how the story ends: happily ever after or bittersweet.
The secret of developing characters is much like an iceberg. It’s not about the ice we see above the surface, the ice a character has shown us up until now; it’s about the ice we don’t see, the ice below the surface, the ice we get to learn about. How deep that ice goes, how big of a problem the ice really is.
So, when it comes to developing characters, the secret I share with you is this: Go Deep.
Purpose: To share and encourage. Writers can express doubts and concerns without fear of appearing foolish or weak. Those who have been through the fire can offer assistance and guidance. It’s a safe haven for insecure writers of all kinds!
Posting: The first Wednesday of every month is officially Insecure Writer’s Support Group day. Post your thoughts on your own blog. Talk about your doubts and the fears you have conquered. Discuss your struggles and triumphs. Offer a word of encouragement for others who are struggling. Visit others in the group and connect with your fellow writer – aim for a dozen new people each time – and return comments. This group is all about connecting!