How often do you stare at a blank screen, pulling your hair out, gritting your teeth as you curse your muse? Maybe you’ve even crossed over into guzzling coffee (or martinis?) because you can’t figure out what to write next?
It used to happen far too often with me. Then, one day, rather than trying to figure out the story myself, I began to ask my characters to help me, to tell me their secrets, their stories. Granted, to a non-writer, talking to my characters may sound a little crazy. But if you’re a writer, I hope the techniques I’ve developed over the years will help you discover stories through your characters.
In my new book, Creative Characterization, I list six different methods and eight associated exercises to help writers develop characters who will tell secrets and stories that will keep readers turning the pages to discover more.
Today, I’ll talk about two of methods. I’ve used both many times, and each time, I’ve learned something about the character or plot that I didn’t know before. (NOTE: Be sure to take at least 15 minutes to do the exercises. The longer you take, the more you’ll learn.)
This is my favorite, as well as a favorite of my workshop attendees. You can use the method to interview a character in your mind, writing as you imagine it. Or, you can ask a friend to interview you as your character. You’ll be surprised at what you’ll learn.
- Write down several questions to ask your character. My book contains a list of 20 questions. Here are a few examples:
- Tell me about something that made you happy.
- Tell me about a time someone teased you as a child.
- Tell me a secret, either about yourself or someone else.
2. Close your eyes and imagine sitting with the character. Imagine the setting—the sights, sounds, smells.
- Carry on a conversation in your mind and write it down. (ie, don’t go down the list of questions asking your character for answers. Instead, start by asking one or two questions, and see where the conversation leads.)
- Pay attention to your character’s “voice” in dialogue and internalization.
- Don’t lift your pen from the page or your fingers from the keyboard. Don’t censor. Don’t edit.
A few years ago, I interviewed one of my characters while writing the sequel to my historical fiction, The Red Kimono. Nobu Kimura is Japanese American, a former WWII internee, who still holds resentment for the way he was treated during the war. At the time of this interview, I was having difficulty determining what his story would be in the sequel. Not only did I learn what Nobu’s story would be, I learned a few secrets that I hadn’t known before the interview, secrets that added to the plot of the sequel. To read the interview titled, “Happy Hour with Nobu,” please click HERE.
METHOD 2: Write a Letter from One Character to Another
Again, this may sound a little crazy, but sometimes a character may talk to another character when he or she won’t talk to you. But who’s to say you can’t “eavesdrop?”
- Choose the two characters who will “correspond.” The characters can either be two main characters, or sometimes it’s helpful to have a non-point of view (secondary) character write a letter to one of your main characters.
- Be sure to stay in the “voice” of the character who is writing the letter.
- Don’t lift your pen from the page or fingers from the keyboard. Don’t censor. Don’t edit.
Following is an example of a letter I wrote between two of my characters in The Red Kimono. I wrote it one afternoon while suffering with a severe case of writer’s block. Although the letter is written from Sachi to her brother Nobu, writing the letter helped me to see that cultural differences between ten-year old Sachi and her black friend, Jubie, did not separate them, instead, created a bond that lasted a life time.
April 20, 1943
Yesterday Jubie and I played by the creek. It was still cold, but we decided we were ready for springtime. We started building a dam to make a little swimming hole for when it gets hot and sticky like it did last summer.
When we moved one big rock, a couple of weird-looking lobster-like creatures skittered away. Jubie called them crawdads. She said you could eat them, and that she’d ask her Auntie Bess to cook up a pot. But first, she said we’d have to catch enough of them.
People around here eat some strange foods, Nobu. Of course, Jubie probably thinks what we eat is strange, too.
I told her once that I like seaweed with my rice. She crinkled her nose and asked what seaweed was. I had to remind myself that if she’s never seen the ocean, she’s probably never heard of seaweed. When I explained that it was like thick, long blades of grass that grow in the ocean, she stuck out her tongue! That’s okay, because that’s how I felt about eating crawdads.
In case you’re worried about Mama finding out that I’m still hanging around with Jubie, don’t be. She doesn’t even ask where I’ve been anymore.
Mama and I miss you, but we’re doing fine. It’s always nice to get your letters, so please write us as soon as you can.
From your loving sister,
The next time you find yourself with a stare as blank as the screen in front of you, give one of these exercises a try. If you’d like several other ideas, such as writing a scene from the point of view of a different character or writing with your non-dominant hand, my book, Creative Characterization, is available on Amazon.
Jan Morrill was born and (mostly) raised in California. Her mother, a Buddhist Japanese American, was an internee during World War II. Her father, a Southern Baptist redhead of Irish descent, retired from the Air Force. Jan’s historical fiction, The Red Kimono, and other award-winning short stories and memoir essays, reflect growing up in a multicultural, multi-religious, multi-political background.
While working on the sequel to The Red Kimono, Jan enjoys conducting workshops and speaking about writing, as well as the history of the Japanese American internment. For more about Jan, please visit her website: http://janmorrill.com/
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