By Naomi Jackson
It’s happened to every writer. You push through thousands of words like butter, and then a pivotal character suddenly dries up. The voices in your head stop talking. You’re stranded without a plot or character arc, because it’s impossible to portray a person you know nothing about.
Never fear! Below I will describe five ways that have helped me uncover more random facts about my characters and delve into their motivations to understand who they truly are. Once you’re inside a character’s mind, it’s easier to predict what he wants and where he’s going.
Interview Your Character
You’ve probably seen graphics on Pinterest that prompt writers to jot down ten or twenty details about their characters that readers may never learn. These lists can be a great asset. Scribble down whatever pops into your head first and feel free to be silly, but it’s crucial to dwell on the tougher questions too. What is your character’s worst fear? Favorite childhood memory? Why did she choose this profession/quest/etc.? What drives her forward?
The more you penetrate your character’s heart, the closer you’ll come to discovering what propels her, what slows her down, and what experiences may govern her character arc. Usually this will be enough to get the juices flowing, but for especially bad cases of character block, try turning to the next strategy.
Write a Scene from Your Character’s Past
This can be any scene that occurs before the book’s narrative starts, but it’s best if it impacts the story you’re presently writing. Does your character have a scar? Does he have a memory of his grandma that he will always cherish? Did he witness the raid that wiped out his village? Was he bullied at school? Did he ever win any awards? Dive into the scene and compose it like a short story; it will give you insight into what carved your character into who he is when the book opens.
To reach an even deeper layer of your character’s makeup, start asking why. Why did someone scar him? Why does he cherish that memory of his grandma? Maybe there was a lot of class tension, and a student of a higher/lower grade scared him. Does that affect how he treats school in your current narrative? Maybe his parents neglected him, so his grandma raised him and he adored her. Or, to the contrary, perhaps he lived far away from his grandma, so that memory is one of the few he has. Both are good answers, and both will completely change how you view your character—and how your character views the world.
Maybe you’re writing a story in first person from the perspective of your protagonist, which is making it difficult to develop your side characters. So write a few scenes (whether vital or trivial) from their viewpoints to define their personalities more clearly.
If you’re having trouble with your protagonist, experiment with using a different POV, such as deep third person. Describe your character’s facial expressions and body language, which you can’t capitalize on as much in first-person POV. Sometimes the thoughts a character withholds can be as important as the dialogue she voices aloud.
Detach Your Character from the Surroundings
This trick is my personal go-to because it has never failed me. I imagine my characters on break. I even have an elaborate set of trailers and lounge areas constructed in my mind for this purpose. Think behind the scenes of a movie set, only the characters are playing themselves. Who does your problem character hang out with at the water cooler? How does she decorate her trailer? Is she a diva who only drinks artisanal coffee, or is she the “camp mom” who urges everyone to eat three hearty meals a day?
Sometimes characters become glued to whatever setting you’ve created for them. As a fantasy author, this happens to me often. I’ve put so much effort into world building that the world almost becomes a character in of itself. But a real human has a personality separate from the place she lives. If you move your characters off the stage and glimpse them without their dragons or revolutionary war swords, you will reveal a new side of them.
Sentence Your Character to Death
This one is my last resort for a character who will not cooperate. I sign the character’s death certificate and then solemnly write his will (cue depressing and slightly threatening music). What worldly goods does he own? Who would he leave them to? Does he have any words of wisdom to share with the other characters? Sometimes writing from the POV of your character as he’s about to die is the best way to pinpoint what he holds dear—and the discovery can be shocking.
One of my character’s most prized possessions turned out to be his shoes. As with method number two, I began asking why. I desperately wanted to know the reason those shoes were so important! I determined that his grandpa, who he never met, made the shoes. After that, I kept asking why until I had covered all the possibilities. Why did his grandpa never get to meet him? And why would his grandpa decide to make him shoes?
Interrogation Results in Inspiration
Whether quickly or slowly, by asking questions you will unearth some deep secrets your character carries around, which may alter the whole course of the book. Most of these details will probably never be mentioned or explained in print. But understanding your character and what makes him tick will enrich your book, because it will help you write your character more vividly and realistically.
Here’s to the voices (of cooperative characters) in our heads! May they never stop gabbing!
Naomi Jackson is a freelance writer and storyteller who resides in Southern Florida. After graduating from her homeschool education, Naomi attended the Bill Rice Bible Institute in TN, where she studied Doctrine and Children’s Ministry. When she isn’t writing, reading, or editing (her least favorite of the three) you can find her volunteering at her church, taking long walks, or hanging out on social media. Her debut children’s novel, Hobo Stew, was published this spring, and continues to consume most of her time. You can find her short stories and thoughts on books at naomijacksonwrites.com.