This is the fourth in a series of six observations on writing craft
Another note I find myself writing on almost every contest entry I judge is some variation on: Take the time to think more deeply about your characters.
More time. Always more time. Ugh.
Everyone drafts books differently, but for most people I would imagine that characters are less distinct in the first few drafts than they will eventually be. I find out a lot about my characters by writing them, and then looking at what I have and drawing them out of the clues I find there. It’s one of the great joys of working on a book – feeling these characters become deeper, more complex people.
But I’m always aware, when I write that feedback, that it’s a simple note for a difficult process. Easy to say ‘think deeply about your characters’, but what on earth does that look like? And once you’ve figured out how to do it, how do you bring what you’ve found back to the page?
The answers to those questions will be different for everyone, and I think it’s worth thinking about it – maybe even trying to make a process for it.
Something that occurs to me when I’m reading contest entries is that the writer might feel more free to explore the character if they took them out of the plot. The plot – especially if it’s a tight, romance-trope plot – often feels like it’s dictating the character, rather than the other way around.
So one way to approach it could be to have your character perform a simple task and write their stream of consciousness as they do it. Follow every little thought, no matter how trivial. Let them bitch and concentrate and worry. Toni Jordan used to ask us to write our characters peeling an orange. Then you have to figure out how your character peels an orange. With a knife, or fingers? Messy, fussy, annoyed? How do they experience the sensations? Are they even aware of them, or are they thinking about something else? How do their body and their mind relate to each other?
My feeling is that once you’ve done this work, you’re writing from a place of greater understanding and it will be quite natural to bring the more complex elements of your character into the scene.
However, I have one excellent shortcut to suggest: The simplest way to make a character feel complex is to have them feel multiple, even contradictory things at once.
I notice this when it’s done well, and I notice when it’s absent. If a character feels only one thing, they feel simple – especially if that one feeling is the obvious response to what’s happening in the scene. If they feel multiple things they begin to feel realistic. Intimacy is wonderful and scary. When new opportunities enter your life they often take you outside your comfort zone. Or going back to the last post about family: You can love someone and be frustrated by them at the same time, or want them to succeed and feel jealous. It doesn’t make you a bad person, it just makes you human.
Another effect it has is that it forces the character to have an inner dialogue about themselves. To feel multiple things at once you need a level of self-awareness that allows you to feel something and understand why you feel it, but not give weight to it or act on it. Or to watch yourself having the worst possible reaction to something even while you understand that you’re behaving badly and making things worse. We don’t always act in our best interests, and we don’t always enact our worst impulses.
I’m not saying every character should perfectly understand themselves, because so few of us do. But even when we wilfully misunderstand ourselves, it’s in the context of an inner dialogue that has developed over a lifetime of being in our own head.
Seeing this inner life makes characters feel multi-dimensional, and it makes them feel like grown-ups.