I’m writing about characters I know almost nothing about, yet they seem to be coming to life and pouring onto the page on their own.
This is what I live for as a writer – the “conduit” feeling. The realisation that all your characters are inside you, bursting to get out and that you don’t have to do a thing except move your hand across the page or wiggle your fingers over the keys. Yeah!
The conduit experience doesn’t last long, though, and sooner or later, I have to resume my writer position and actually make a decision about something. Oh characters, why can’t you just continue taking on a life of your own?
One of the things I struggle with most – especially after this burst of creativity – is trying to figure out how my characters are supposed to react. To anything. How do they feel or think about particular situation? What do they do? What’s their next action or decision?
I’m a victim of spending too much time inside my head (aren’t we all?) and in the midst of this character-reaction procrastination, I discovered a way of thinking and writing that works for me – that forces me out of my head, to think about real character options añnd solutions.
I find this is a great tool if I’m stuck and simply can’t figure out how my character will react to something or how they feel about a particular scenario/incident/comment/question/action. Often, this is what holds up a narrative – and holds up writing.
1. Write a List of Emotions/Adjectives
A list can open up your mind, give you lots of options and even help you see things from a different point of view.
Keep your responses one or two words long. So if the question is: How would your character react to this situation? Your answers might be:
My character could be:
- Happy / delighted / excited
- Upset / depressed / lost
- Furious / annoyed / frustrated
- Proud / self-confident / empowered
- Jealous / spiteful
- Scared / petrified
- Tense / panicked
- Dumbfounded / baffled / shocked beyond belief
As you can see, your list doesn’t have to be a work of art or a stroke of genius. These are words a 12-year-old would use, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Just write the first things that come into your head.
2. Write a List of Actionable Possibilities
The next trick is to follow each emotion through to an Action:
If my character was _______ , he/she could then ___________ . Which would lead him/her to __________.
Your Actions can be anything – they can huge, tiny or simply a decision to act or think. A lot of will depend on your actual character and the dilemma they are facing.
- If my character was angry, she could pick up the phone and call her friend. Which would lead her to a conversation, where she discovers something she isn’t supposed to know about her situation.
- If my character was delighted, he could pack up everything and decide to leave. But then start to have doubts about the people he’s leaving behind.
Actions can make perfect sense or they can seem silly or clichéd or mismatched. Not all of them will feel “right” or even brilliant. But who cares. The idea is just to create options for you and your character.
A lot of these felt very “wooden” and forced at the time (and they still read that way) but it least it gave me something to work with and presented me with options through which to explore the rest of the narrative.
3. Mix Emotions & Possibilities Together
Welcome to the world of three-dimensional characters! Great characters never just have one emotion – their responses and inner thoughts are always mixed. They’re conflicting and complex.
So, the next step is to kind of string your character’s emotional responses together (or have them happening at the same time) and then consider how this impacts what they do next – i.e. your narrative.
For instance, a character can:
- Respond to something happily, then start to have doubts
- Be shocked, resentful, angry and upset all at the same time
- Feel scared, but then find a way to feel empowered
This step will help you to create that emotional arc in your character, something that not only brings him or her to life, but also helps you define your narrative and even your story ending.
Once you have a completed draft in front of you, you can then refine those emotions, reactions and arcs so that they work more as a whole throughout the narrative.
(images courtesy of iosphere / freedigitalphotos.net)