With apologies to one of my favourite writing physicians, Oliver Sacks, I titled this post, Seeing Voices, because that’s what it feels like when I’m fully engaged in writing characters I know well.
So how do you come up with complex, interesting characters? Get them to talk. Engage them in conversation. Ask them questions not only about the predicament they’re in and what they think about the other characters, but also their past, their pet peeves, their first love, their father, what they like to eat, whether they like to exercise or have health problems. Not all of this information will find it’s way into your story, but some will and all of it will inform what you write.
In his book The Art of War for Writers, James Scott Bell suggests doing “voice journals.” His technique is to write for five or ten minutes in an unedited, stream of consciousness journal from the voice of that character. Though this writing will be separate from your story, what comes out of it will definitely show up there. It’s a great way to get unstuck if your story has stalled.
And that leads us to the other benefit of tapping into the voice of your character. Plot. Characters carry out our plots. Once we know what motivates them, what their secrets are, what frustrates them, we have so much more information about what needs to happen and why.
My writing goal this summer is to finish or revise several short stories that got stalled for one reason or another. But we all know how difficult it is to pick up a stale project and breathe new life into it. I couldn’t even remember some of the character’s names, much less where they were emotionally when I left them stranded!
I came up with an experiment to get to know them again. Get to know them better. I put all the main characters from these stories in the same “room” and let them talk. While this might work as a mind-only thought process, I wanted something more concrete, so I am writing this conversation complete with setting (sketchy, just enough to find out what type of furniture they sit on and how), actions, body language and internal perceptions by participants.
My character mash-up helped immediately. The interactions zapped me right back into their lives and their personalities. Of course bold Sannis would speak first and naturally, Gama (a grandmother whose given name, I realized, hasn’t even been revealed yet) would provide a nurturing comment. But it also worked because other characters surprised me. Reticent, confused Lanyard didn’t let himself be pushed around by the others. Sukey, young and protected, spoke up and offered insights. Chim was late and the others seemed to expect this. Some were tolerant, others not so much. Candace’s differences from Sukey were readily apparent in her wide-eyed awe of the adults, especially Sannis. And in this safe environment—finally—Sannis began to open up and let her insecurities show.
This exercise made me excited about these people once again. Seeing their voices on the page reminded me that they are well-developed characters I don’t know nearly as intimately as I want to. Plus, I feel a need to resolve the situations I left them in. When I started this, I thought it would be a quick one-time writing exercise. Now I think of it as on-going dialogue.
Whenever I need to, I can eavesdrop on these characters and find out what I need to know.