This being November, it is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), in which we writers try to write 50,000 words of a novel. We hope it makes some sort of sense when we’re finished with it. But often we get into the middle and the story just sort of peters out. Loud are the laments: “My story isn’t going anywhere and my stupid character is just sitting there not doing anything.”
One of the main problems writers have is getting to know the characters in the first place. It’s not good enough to say, “I’ll get to know them as the book progresses.” We only have 50,000-100,000 words for the entire book. That’s not very much time to develop a character we don’t know. Most of the time if all you know about a character is that he has brown hair, amber eyes, a square jaw, a roguish grin, and you think he likes to eat sushi, you’ll be surprised when he crosses to street to eat spicy noodle soup at a leaning shop in the run-down market selling black-spotted bananas and nearly bald tires. You stop and go, “Where did that come from? You’re supposed to like sushi. I planned for you to like sushi.”
“Yeah, well, that’s because you know nothing about me.”
Wonderful. Now what?
Become your character. Put yourself in his skin. If this sounds more than a little ick, take a deep breath (or two or three if you need it). There’s a good reason to do this, or I wouldn’t suggest it. The only way to truly understand your character is to become him.
I asked my daughter, who also writes, what she feels when she becomes one of her characters. She said it’s uncomfortable – for both her and the character. This makes sense; everyone has personal space – even our characters – and no one likes being invaded. The act of becoming a character, of putting on his skin, is a bit akin to being possessed. Who we are in our normal everyday lives has to step back and go along for the ride with the character. At this point we become documentarian or scribe and just write what he does, sees, touches, tastes, hears, and feels.
So when your character goes across the street to eat spicy noodles in a run-down little shop, you understand that one of his favorite childhood memories was visiting Thailand with his father and uncle after his mother died when he was twelve. He couldn’t sleep one night and went for a walk, where an old woman saw him and fed him spicy noodle soup. He never told anyone he went there, but he can still feel them slipping down his throat, smooth and delicious, with a burn at the end that left his eyes watering and his nose running. This is the same shop and the same woman and the soup is just as good – and the old woman wasn’t as old as he thought, she just seemed old to a twelve-year-old boy. On top of that, he hates raw fish, so he’ll never eat at a sushi place.
Just because you, as the writer, likes sushi, don’t assume your character does. Only by becoming your character can you understand what he likes and dislikes, and why. You gain a sense of his tastes, what turns him on, what makes him cry.
Remember, this is not about us. This is about our character. We don’t have to agree with his beliefs, morals, or politics. Those are all our character’s choices. Their choices are what make them who they are.
[Image above is original artwork for Eric Brown’s Necropath series]
Eric Brown wrote the fascinating Necropath series set on an exotic spaceport tethered in the Bay of Bengal. The main character is named Jeff Vaughan, a drug-addicted telepath. He is deeply flawed and the ultimate hero, though it takes him some time to come to the conclusion he’s alright with being heroic. The reader travels with him over three novels, getting to see his failures, his triumphs, and all the reasons he feels the way he does. He rescues and marries a prostitute, the sister of a young girl who was murdered. His choices are what form him, and eventually transform him. While I personally would never choose to take drugs, I understood his motives. I cared that he got himself in hand and moved forward with his life.
In the same way, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is a wonderful study in character immersion. From the very beginning we care about poor little Harry, whose parents have been brutally murdered. The fact that he’s abused by his relatives only makes us care more. We want him to escape, and Hogwarts is a wonderful place – until it isn’t. Ms. Rowling understood Harry and she dragged us into Harry’s character and his world, from which we surfaced reluctantly.
Think about your own favourite authors. What do you love about their characters and why?
So how does a writer become the character? The simple answer is to talk with him. That will only take you so far. Ask him if he’ll take you with him, show you what he feels, sees, touches, smells, etc. Promise him you’ll only write what he shows you.
Like any human relationship, there needs to be a measure of trust established before they will let you that close – or you are willing to get that close. I have a character in one of my novels that I simply could not get a good handle on. It seems as if there was a barrier between us and he was just showing me what he wanted me to see, not who he really is. I finally asked him why and realized he’s desperately terrified of letting anyone get too close. So he puts on this lovely smile and gives generous hugs, but he’s keeping the real him hidden. This will take some work, but now I’ve got the glimmer of a way through to him. The fact that he trusted me enough to let me see his fear is an honour. I did not know about this facet of his character and it changes everything, opens new paths for the series.
None of this is easy, and many times I have to stop in the middle of the writing and check with my characters, especially if they are reluctant or recalcitrant. Sometimes it’s a plot hole, or a plot bunny we think would be fun to chase (and which then needs to be unwritten), but usually it’s because I’m assuming my character wants one thing when he really wants/knows/feels something entirely different. If I’d slow down and just write what my character is doing, seeing, feeling, etc., we’d be good.
Now that I am in my character’s skin, what do I do? That’s for next time when I discuss how to write from the inside of our character.
I love hearing from my readers. Which authors do you love for their characters and why? If you write, how do you become your character?
Until next time, enjoy the journey.