Where to Find Characters

Creating believable characters is the single most important thing you can do as a writer. Characters are what drive your story. They make it interesting. They keep the reader engaged because they are relatable, almost tangible people who have fears and desires and triumphs, just like your readers. A good plot is great, don’t get me wrong, but I have found that characters (good, almost living, breathing characters) only get in the way of the plot. Because they have minds of their own. Because something comes along and the way they want to pursue it is different from the way you would have them pursue it. Before you know it, your plot is full of holes and you have fully developed, thinking characters running around the story wreaking havoc. If you’re a planner, a plotter, a non-pantser, just reading this might terrify you but I promise you, it is the best thing that could ever happen to your story.

So where do you find these headstrong and willful characters? How can you take a two-dimensional, chicken-scratch character from your notebook and form it into a substantial, believable person? Spying and eavesdropping, two powerful tools that no one will tell you about, probably because they sounds like terrible advice! Trust me, though. People watching (spying) and paying attention (eavesdropping) can spark the beginnings of a dynamite character which can make or break your story, novel, or screenplay. If you feel guilty, as I did when I first began practicing this, remember that you’re not taking a real flesh and blood person and writing a character based exactly on them. You are looking for a quirk, something memorable or beautiful or strange, which you will then incorporate with a handful of other qualities into a well-rounded character.

There are moments I can still remember vividly because they made such an impact on me. Those moments, like snapshots, are burned into my brain and I use them to create meaningful characters. For example, when I lived in NY I made an early morning run to the grocery and saw this moment that I’ll never be able to forget:

The boy sits in the passenger seat, bored and resigned. The girl is looking at him with that light in her eyes that means more than he’s interested in seeing. The little green car is all beat up and the light reflects off of the one white door on the driver’s side. The pavement of the parking lot is still dark with rain from the night before and the lights of the car barely make yellow circles in the thick mist rising from the blacktop.

These moments, ones that strike you with their beauty or sadness or strangeness, the overheard conversations that make you double take, or shake with silent laughter, are what form characters that carry weight. This is what I mean when I say you should “spy and eavesdrop” on people. Be aware of the life happening around you and you will always be rewarded. I’m sure you are thinking of your own “snapshot” right now. Go write it down! See where it take you!

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Procrastination: The Writer’s True Profession

“The most important things are the hardest to say. They are the things you get ashamed of, because words diminish them — words shrink things that seemed limitless when they were in your head to no more than living size when they’re brought out. But it’s more than that, isn’t it? The most important things lie too close to wherever your secret heart is buried, like landmarks to a treasure your enemies would love to steal away. And you may make revelations that cost you dearly only to have people look at you in a funny way, not understanding what you’ve said at all, or why you thought it was so important that you almost cried while you were saying it. That’s the worst, I think. When the secret stays locked within not for want of a teller but for want of an understanding ear.” S. King, Different Seasons

You may have noticed that today is Wednesday and that my posts usually come out on Tuesday. You are very observant. That is true. The problem is that I have been experiencing some road blocks to my word count and I’ve been avoiding telling you because then, I don’t have to admit it to myself. But, if I’m going to be honest, the going is HARD right now. I won’t call it writer’s block because I have a ton of scenarios and conversations buzzing around inside my head, I just can’t get them into any cohesive being. On top of that, I have a lot of emotions running wild because I’d left things sit for too long and am just now attempting to deal with them. In the long run, this overabundance of information and detail and character is better, because I will have more to pull from, but right now, in the thick of it and with everything else going on, I am overwhelmed. So what do I do? That’s right, you smarty pants, I procrastinate.

You might be thinking (I can tell you’re a thinker) “What’s the big deal? Why the struggle? Why not just write down all the things and go from there?” And in a way, you’re right. I do need to get it all down, even if it’s jumbled, just so I have it. But there is something about writing that is so much more than “just writing.” I know that sounds really weird but there is a part of me that goes into each line, each phrase, each paragraph. And I’m overwhelmed. Which means the writing is overwhelmed; hence the abundance of information that just won’t jive together. My sentences are stilted and hesitating as I try to say just enough to express a feeling without giving away the motivation. There isn’t that flow that comes when your mind and heart are working together. It’s just words on a page, and that isn’t ever what I want.

So I have to convince myself to keep going, to keep writing, to continue through the brainstorm even though the new idea just negated the three days of outlining I’ve already done, to let the characters bumble around and try out their new disguises until everyone is comfortable and ready to go on. Because fiction is truth. It’s truer than most anything in the world and it has the power to change how we see ourselves. That is why I face the days of just getting the words on the page, that’s why I keep going when I want to give up, that’s why I tell you what is really going on. So I can craft a truth that resonates with us, separately but together.