“I LOVE plotting, but I’m drowning in binders and color-coordinated sticky notes! How can I make my characters feel authentic when I’m telling them what to do?”
-Missing My Pants
As I said in my last column, I’m an incurable plotter. I love spreadsheets, index cards, and workbooks. In fact, a lot of the time I have more fun plotting than doing the actual writing. I’ve been told this makes my writing dry as a cracker in the high desert (take that how you will). So, allow me to take a moment to be my own worst critic and give myself some much-needed advice. Here are three ways you can spice up your writing to put the soul of the character on the page.
No, I’m not going to tell you what to do in the confines of your own bedroom (wink wink).
I come from the theatre world, where you’re constantly pushing past actors talking to themselves in the hallways and those “method” people who won’t break character until closing curtain (and sometimes not even then. This is how alcoholism starts, people). These folks know how to be their characters. My suggestion? Go join a community play, or get together with a bunch of friends and a script. In addition to the characterization benefits it will get you a social life (don’t try to fool me, you’re a writer).
For those with crippling stage fright and things like, you know, lives that do not leave room for 35+ hours of rehearsal per week (true story), there are other options. I have a lot of friends who got into writing via tabletop gaming. It’s probably something that would get you admitted to King of the Nerds, but it’s another form of collective storytelling that might just kick some life into those puppets you call your characters.
And then, my favorite: Pick a friend, one who has similar sensibilities to you. Pick a character. Write a story back and forth. It’s that simple. I don’t know of a more organic way to get a feel for your characters’ instincts. You can even find whole online communities dedicated to writing the sort of stories you love.
2. Traps and Sh*t!
Okay, you already know your main character fell into a trap – he rescued his one twue wuv from the evil prince, but it turns out it was a trap to get him captured! Oh noes! How will he escape?
That depends on the character, doesn’t it? Of course, you know that he’s going to escape, because it says it right there in the plot outline! But each character is going to go about this differently. Some are going to fight their way out to be with the one they love. Some are going to lie and steal and sneak.
And some are going to lie there in the Pit of Despair and wait for Andre the Giant to come rescue him.
Let your characters decide how they’re going to make it out of the trap. Stress is bound to make those little guys emote.
3. Terrorize the Heck Out of Them!
Speaking of stress, what does your character fear most? Use your plotting superpowers to push them into these situations.
What make a character terrified or angry is what’s going to set them apart from the others. It’s often linked to their history: a character who lays down tarps in her apartment whenever a messy friend comes over probably does so because she remembers her mother as a neat freak, never satisfied until every crumb was picked up. Oh, the psychological trauma we’re delving into here!
Make the reader feel the character’s terror—and then force them to face it! Have that messy friend spill on the pristine carpets on purpose—for our neat freak’s “own good.” And let the roiling anger radiate right off the page until the reader’s hitting his own panic button!
4. Bonus! Master Gesture
This is a term that every actress worth her salt knows. In “The Virgin Queen,” a TV historical fiction about Queen Elizabeth I, Anne-Marie Duff in the title role continually raises a finger to her lips and bites on it while she thinks. It’s a gesture echoed throughout the performance, from the young princess to the final moments of the queen’s death, and is a nod to the monarch’s shrewd intelligence and refusal to let a man think for her.
You can do this, too. Give your character a master gesture—a movement that we come to associate with that character’s personality or inner turmoil. This can be something as grandiose as a comedic sidekick continually stumbling over his own feet, or as minimal as a grunt and a roll of the eyes whenever a drama queen has to deal with her arch nemesis. These little details can make your characters leap off the page.
I hope these tips helped all you fellow plotters out there. What’s most important of all for us to remember is that sometimes we have to trust our instincts, close our eyes, and leap. Close our outlines once in a while. Let our characters play. Remember, that’s what’s going to bring our readers coming back for more.
Got a question? Tweet me @beccaquibbles with the hashtag #askbecca, email me at becca [at] DIYMFA [dot] com, or just leave a comment below! You could see your question answered right here At Ask Becca!
With a B.A. in B.S. (translation: English Major), Rebecca Ann Jordan is a speculative fiction author in San Diego. She has published short pieces in Fiction Vortex, Yemassee Magazine, Bravura Literary Journal, and more, and currently acts as Junior Assistant Editor at Bartleby Snopes. Her fetishes include controversial grammar, mythological happenings and yarn-swapping.