In this month’s Getting Unstuck, Jen Dupree dives into resources available for writing strong, well-rounded characters. How can we write compelling characters without knowing who they are? And how better to learn your characters than taking them on a first date?
If you want other people to care about your characters as much as you do, it’s important to get to know who they are and what motivates them. You’ve heard that before, probably. Maybe you’ve heard that your characters have to be believable, have to feel real. Maybe, like me, you try to give them one quirk or trait to make them memorable. Maybe you make lists of things they have in their purse or bedroom drawer or maybe you give them job-interview style questions. (I do all of this, myself, in one form or another.) All of that’s good, but it can start to feel like a collection of details if you aren’t able to focus on exactly what you need to know about the character (see my dozens of notebooks filled with character information that has never seen the page). In my mind and in my writing, getting to know a character is like getting to know a date. I have a glimmer, a glimpse, an inkling, and I want to know more. My characters kind of appear in my mind and they seem really interesting even though I don’t yet know much about them. How, then, do we translate this character information into authentic characters on the page?
In this episode of Write-minded, guest A.M. Homes says that she thinks about “what would be important to the character” rather than what she, the author, feels is important. But how do you know? You can’t just come out and ask that on a first date (can you?)—so how do you find out what’s important and why? Write-minded cohosts Brooke Warner and Grant Faulkner tease out Homes’s idea. Say a character uses travel-sized toothpaste exclusively. Well, that’s interesting, but why do they only use travel-sized toothpaste? Faulkner posits, “Is it because they think they’ll only be here for a little while? Or do they get them free somewhere?” I can think of a long list of other reasons (an unwillingness to commit to a brand, a love of miniature, a strong desire to avoid the crusty bits that accumulate on the top of toothpaste after a while) but the point is to figure what the meaning behind the object is. You can’t, and shouldn’t, do this with every single thing that appears in your story. You’d be exhausted (and we’d be exhausted reading you). Just pick a few things—and maybe they won’t even show up in the finished story—but they’ll tell you what you need to know about how your character operates in the world.
And once you start excavating the meaning behind the stuff of your characters, they’ll likely start answering you in ways you didn’t expect. That’s okay. I think it’s actually a sign you’ve created fully-formed characters. Omer Friedlander, in this episode of First Draft, says, “I like that idea of a conversation between an author and their characters as something on a more equal footing, rather than an author pulling the strings and making their puppet character do whatever they want, because I think it feels unnatural when a certain kind of plot is forced on a character, or when you want the story to contort in certain ways that don’t seem organic.” What we see sometimes in submissions is an author trying to shoehorn a character into a plot they’re committed to at any cost. Sometimes an author needs to let go of a plot, or maybe the author just needs to discover that one thing about the character that would make her do such a crazy/sad/difficult/misguided/funny/terrifying thing.
But what happens when you love your characters too much? In this episode of W/MFA, Dantiel W. Moniz says, “If you’re trying to tell a story as completely as you can, you can’t sit in judgement of your characters, but you also can’t protect them.” It’s so hard when you’ve done all the work to get to know your character and you realize either that they have the capacity and/or desire to do something really awful, or that something awful will necessarily befall them. We see this desire to protect with some submissions: the character who almost tells her boss/mother/teacher off, the character who almost tells his partner/mother/yoga instructor the truth, the character who just misses getting hit by a car/bus/bicycle/bird, the character who thinks about saying/doing/reacting/confessing but doesn’t. In the spirit of getting to know them fully, you have to let them do bad things and let bad things happen to them.
In short, ask questions of your characters and then ask again, in a different way. Ask questions of the things you allow them to do or not do, of their successes and failures, of their decisions and non-decisions, of their stuff, their lack of stuff, their hatred of dogs or their love of peppermint. Then think about what that stuff might mean in the context of your character’s life, the life you’ve created on the page. If your character seems to be pulling you in a direction you didn’t think you wanted to go, consider it. If your character starts to do and say things that have unexpected results, weigh the authenticity of their actions against what, by now, you know about them. By the final draft, your characters should feel like someone you’ve known forever.
by Jen Dupree