That’s what I have been doing, the reason you guys haven’t heard from me in a while (ahem): I have been getting closer to my characters. Especially the protagonist of my creative thesis, a novel for young readers, 75-80 pages of which I am to send to the MFA program office by December in order to graduate. Polished, submittable/potentially publishable, approved-by-advisor pages. Now you see why I haven’t been blogging more often in the past two months?
I find characters are just like real people, sometimes, in that they like to put up defenses. They wear masks; they like to give a certain impression. They hide things. Our job as writers is to lovingly, but also unflinchingly, get past their defenses. Once we get to a place where they are most vulnerable, once we understand their core, we will know our story. What are some of the ways we can do that?
One way is of course to write a draft. And then another. And another. Then there is the thinking, just mulling things over, the least effective method, in my opinion. Brainstorming with writer friends or others can be effective, to a point. Discuss your story too much with too many people, and you can find yourself in danger of losing hold of your own vision. Some writers swear by filling out character biographies and questionnaires between drafts. As for me, in my time at VCFA, I have discovered the value — and the fun! — of writing exercises, what one of our advisors calls “side writing.” I call it “low-stakes” writing. I also call it “getting closer.”
1. My current semester mentor Lou has me meditate on my character every single month. I imagine her in her own space, allow her to do what she will. This is not always easy, but almost always worth it. After a while of “watching” your character get out a piece of paper and a pen and just write down the things you saw him or her do.
2. Here is another one from my mentor. Again, get quiet, maybe meditate. Then call forth an image of your character doing something in her space. Once you allow her to get comfortable, ask her a question. Make it a simple question, not too deep (so as not to involve your left brain too much in the answer). For example, if you want to find out what she is afraid of, instead of going the direct route, probe carefully. Ask her about a scary dream, for example. Her answer might give you a clue as to what she considers scary.
3. This one I got from a lecture by one of our faculty advisors Amanda Jenkins, and it’s also something the unforgettable Rita Willaims-Garcia had us do in workshop this past summer residency: Put a timer on for ten minutes and come up with a list of words related to your character (or your story). Don’t think, just write whatever comes into your head. If you’d like, you could narrow down your focus a bit: for example, list words related to how your character feels about another character. Or list words associated with his or her feelings when she’s about to cross some important plot threshold.
4. Make art. All art intersects, don’t you think? Poetry, music, painting, pottery, might there be an art — another art — that is relevant to your story? Then use it, learn more about it, have your character use it! But even if your story has no connection to any other art forms, you can still put your pen down, and say, pick up a paintbrush. That’s what I am doing for my protagonist this month. Yep, it’s part of my packet homework. She is not even a painter, still I am asking my protagonist a question, then having her paint her answer. Try not to worry too much about the results of your work. Anyway, it’s not yours, it’s your character’s 😉
5. Do you have a weakness as a writer? Maybe you worry your characters are too passive, your dialogue stilted, or your setting too thin? Maybe you are trying to figure out the shape of your scenes or your chapters? Whatever it is you are struggling with, think of other novels, one or two, that do it masterfully, ones that make you jealous. Then post-it notes and pencil in hand, comb through the text and study how they did it. Based on your findings, create exercises to challenge yourself to do what your model authors did. For example, I am now preparing a graduate lecture on active characters in “quiet” books where most of the transformation happens internally. In analyzing Nancy Werlin’s YA fantasy, Impossible, I noticed how opinionated the main character was, and how her beliefs fueled and informed her actions. So I went back to my own protagonist, and had a little chat with her about her opinions. She wasn’t always forthcoming. Still, I learned a lot.
And that’s the point of these. To learn. To see your story in fun, new, deeper ways. To shut up the chatty, bossy left-brain editor for a while, long enough to uncover some secrets. And of course, most of all, to get closer to your character. As a bonus, you might end up with some material that will be usable in your manuscript! Better yet, you might hear your character’s true voice.