I am lucky enough to be the moderator of a couple of writing communities. One is the Salt Lake City Writer’s Group and the other Open Vein Writing at Livejournal (yes we had this conversation in the last entry, it still exists, don’t knock it).
One of the primary questions that I ask other people is “how do you get to know your characters?”
Sometimes, the answers are awesome. Sometimes, people look at me like I’ve grown a second head. “What do you mean get to know the character? Won’t they tell me about themselves as I write the story?”
Every character is different. I think every writer knows that. Sometimes you go in knowing everything from favorite color to when they lost their virginity to when they’re going to die. And sometimes, they are a blank slate that you color on. But either way, I think it is so important to get to know your characters.
But why, you ask, is favorite color so important? Because colors are symbols. Because colors give us meaning. Is red a favorite color because your character likes power or because as a child, their favorite fruit was red apples? Why does it matter if your character likes sports? Because it changes the people they hang with, the way they talk. And yes, it matters what sports they like. If you have a character who likes football … it matters what kind of football they like.
What about how your character feels about infedelity? Teen pregnancy? Dogs vs. Cats? Divorce? All of these things matter to how a character is presented, how your character thinks about certain things.
Yes. Characters will surprise us. Yes, we’ll write entire drafts of novels before realizing that a character is say, bisexual instead of a lesbian and going to end up with someone completely different than initially assumed (I’m looking at you, Gina Case.) But characters and stories come alive when we get to know who they are as people. When we get to know who we are as people interacting with them. Because yes, as writers, we are having a relationship with these characters.
Weird, I know. But it’s true. So let me say it again.
We are in a relationship with our characters.
We fall in love, in lust. We hate and scorn and cry. We lecture. We listen. And if that’s not a relationship, I don’t know what is.
So do yourself a favor if you’re stuck. Take your character out for coffee. And by that, I mean a number of things. Take a journal, go sit and write from their persepctive. Have a conversation with them in a coffee shop. Write a short story. Pick a prompt off the internet and give them 500 words on the topic.
Get to know them. Over coffee, tea, wine, whatever.
People write in a lot of different ways and I think that we as writers find different ways within ourselves to bring a character and a story to light. Some people swear by the computer, needing the tapping of the keys that can move almost as fast as their thoughts. Some people can’t look at a computer until the story is written by hand. For me, it’s a mix of the two ideals. For me, it’s actually easier to write on the computer because if I’m at work and want to scribble a few things down, I can do it in Evernote and it’s right there, saved in that strange glow cloud of doom that is the internet world, and I don’t have to worry about losing things. But I still like to collect journals for characters and stories. I mean, every character, down to the very minor ones, should have their own personality, their own style.
This, for example, belonged to one of the characters in my first novel, Shadows in the Spotlight. Chrissie was just a minor character in terms of the space she took up, but her impact on the other characters was felt far beyond the end of the book. She was a blonde, kind of perky metal-head who loved pink and Hello Kitty. The insides of this journal are almost impossible to read as most of it is written, yes, in pink ink.
Sadly, I never filled these pages for Chrissie and there isn’t a reason to go back. The book is done and Chrissie doesn’t have a reason to keep writing. But, there’s a new character who is lurking at the edges of my thoughts who would pick this journal up and run with it. It’s a practical solution.
Wait, back the train up, you say. You actually sit down and write in their name? In their voice? Doesn’t that make you … you know … crazy?
I get that one all the time. My answer? I’m a writer. You got a problem with my crazy, there’s the door.
Character journals are crucial to me. It gives me a chance to fall into the character, to get to know them. To discover who they are at different points in their lives. Also, their journals are often full of sketches of where their story line is going in a novel, where they’ve been, and stuff that I may or may not need to divulge in the course of explaining backstory.
I used to run with a bunch of writers who were into character pens. Every character had their own pen style and that was a way of expressing things. But I’m too darn minimalistic, especially when I am running around, and having 9000 pens with me just so Gina could have the right color when I was out at a coffee shop was never something I adapted well to. But interestingly enough, journals work. I know, I know. Pens didn’t but journals do?
I have a shelf full of journals.
Some of those are mine. The red one right there, that was mine from when I was a teenager. Somewhere in there is my Ramona Quimby Diary. But most of these are there for the characters. And, like I mentioned with Chrissie’s above, many are shared.
One of the best things about character journaling for me is that it allows me to get to know a character or a story without falling into the nerve-destroying process of writing their novel. I can world build, create, and destroy and it’s all there on paper. I can go back years later and wrap a character into something else, decide that a character needs to simply live in those pages, or finally get around to sitting down and taking the world I built and turning it into a story that I would hope someone wants to read.
I don’t only character journal by hand though. I spend a good chunk of my time (too much perhaps) over at Open Vein Writing on LiveJournal (don’t knock it, it’s still the best social media/blogging platform for a whole lot of reasons). See, if I’ve learned anything from being involved with other writers, with talking to them and listening to their thought processes and their critiques on my work, sometimes one of the best ways to develop a story is to let characters who would never in a million years talk to each other start to interact. Sometimes, when that happens, whole new roads for characters are introduced. That happened to me with the most recent novel, actually. One minute, two characters from two different writers are talking back and forth in comments in a post and the next, the idea that their relationship would be a good subplot for the book was born. (Writer note, very important, only share storylines like that if you have trust in your writing partners. It can backfire too.)
The thing is, no matter how you write your characters – if it’s with different pens, or with journals, or just sitting down and writing them, get to know them. The ones bopping around in my head are some of the best friends I’ve ever had. Writing their worlds, in their words, in a journal they chose (or designed), doesn’t just teach me about them. It teaches me about myself.
But whatever you do and however you do it …