The purpose of this blog post is to open the channel of communication between writers and their fictional creations. It’s also a guide for falling in love with beings that have no existence until they are imagined and brought to life.
Believable human drama has one inalterable characteristic: the reader or viewer identifies at once with the lead character. For example, we’re on the edge of our seat when the starry-eyed lover pursues beyond rejection for one last chance to seize the love of a lifetime? Or we’re waiting with bated breath as the battered, beaten hero pursues beyond hope for the final chance for justice? We’re actually there in the story, cheering on the rejected lover and the battered hero, while fearing and hoping it will end happily. Could you ever imagine the author felt the same way?
Conversely, have you been disappointed with a romantic comedy the media hyped? Did you arrive with high expectations that fell totally flat when you realized there was no amorous chemistry between the lovelorn actor/actress? Seriously, the emotional charisma between a man and a woman is there or it isn’t. You can’t fake it, and neither can the characters in your narrative.
Remember the advertising slogan: It’s the sizzle that sells the steak! Consider for a moment, the juxtaposition of plot and characterizations. The plot can make nerves sizzle and readers frantic, but the plot goes nowhere without reader involvement with the characters.
Admit it fellow writers? The first plan of action is the action when embarking on a new narrative. What’s a story without a plot? The plot is the powerful engine that makes NASCAR racing exciting! Really? The number-one spectator sport is all about motors? No, it’s about the drivers! The multitude of spectators identify with their favorite driver. It’s the same with writing fiction. The reader identifies with a favorite character, and he or she actually becomes that character for the short duration of the story. Albeit, NASCAR would be bereft of fun if there were no motors, however the novel just might survive without a plot, and a few have.
Let’s posture that you sort-of-know where you’re going. You’ve prepared a broad-brush plan for a narrative and you might have a rough outline. This is an ideal moment to begin working on your characters. You might wonder where wildly imaginatively writers get their unforgettable characters for a narrative? From the same place doggedly resourceful writers get theirs. They begin by identifying the distinctive feature or quality their character must possess to enable he or she to play a specific role.
Grab your classic Director’s chair and sit with an 8 ½ x 11 pad, clipboard and writing instrument. This is totally sans electronic paraphernalia, and it’s important that you’re free from interruption. It’s also a little spooky. You’re becoming the casting director for your narrative, and you will interview and select the actors/actresses who will be able to match their talent with their prospective role in the narrative. This is a heady moment.
Free the mind from everything except the names of the characters you have written. Each character must audition for his or her role in the narrative. No weaseling out. Please continue and note the characteristics or attributes of the perfect candidate.
The next step is to annotate each character: full name, date-of-birth, Astrological Sign, occupation, parents names and their nationality, residence address, car make and year, high school and college degree, summer work, fulltime work. Construct a full bio for two or more leading characters. Be sure to add religion, opinions, beliefs, fears, turn-ones and turn-offs, likes/dislikes, superstitions, phobias and favorite idol. Name the strongest and the weakest characteristics for each individual. What troubles he or she? What brings happiness? Then note clothing-shoe-apparel-sizes. Does he wear cool or ugly shoes? Is she wearing stiletto heels or scuffed flats? I hope you can appreciate where this is going. With this data, you will have the flesh and bones of a real person.
More than likely, the characters you need to write about do not exist, except as figments of your imagination. This problem can easily be remedied with your personal computer. Please go to Flickr from Yahoo, and enter attractive women or attractive men into the search box on the Home page and scroll through the many photos. Better yet would be to describe the character (pixie hair, tall dark man) by searching for specific characteristics. This may seem like a nebulous concept, but that printed photo will be frequently invaluable when you are writing descriptions.
You have had time to think about your characters. This is a perfect time to add an additional dimension to your character. The plan: go to the Museum of Natural History if you’re writing an historical narrative, or visit your best department store if you have a contemporary timeline. Your purpose is to select garments for two characters that you can perfectly describe from the bio notes.
Please pay primordial attention to the clothing you have selected. At this point the clothing is flat. Take whatever time you might need to go where your creative energy lives. This is the epitome of character design. You will begin to see and feel the characters as they dress in the clothes before you. The wardrobe is a personal matter, and the clothes you select must agree with the personality of the character. Don’t be surprised if you have goose bumps. This is the threshold of an incredible experience?
This is also the moment for a warning: beware of the conscious mind’s protective impulses to regain control. You might experience fearful thoughts: ‘your checking account is overdrawn!’ It’s amazing what lengths the conscious mind will invent to regain attention.
The conscious mind keeps us out of trouble, but it also interferes with creative imagination. For example, learning a foreign language is difficult because the conscious mind prevents fluent thoughts. It insists on examining what you’re about to say in another language and it will train you to conjugate verbs and perform sentence structure in your mind before speaking. It is always successful. No one wants to appear stupid. Truthfully, learning a foreign language is only successful when the subconscious becomes inundated by sensory input. This occurs via an intensive language course or by living in a foreign country. At that time, the foreign language becomes a mental-compartment where thoughts and words flow without the conscious mind’s interference.
Similarly, this is what happens with creative thought. Think of your imagination as a separate compartment where creativity flourishes. This is not paradise. Creative thought is delicious thought. It’s intoxicating. It can also overwhelm the writing process and send the writer down remote pathways that result in lost time and seemingly worthless data. Yet something significant occurs on the ‘misdirected’ pathways: characterizations are reinforced and the resultant understanding is more valuable than the lost time.
Perhaps a horrible thought has just occurred! You have suddenly realized you’ll never stop thinking about your story? Mozeltof! Of course, you’ll become a menace to those about you. It’s embarrassing how candlelight dinners, romantic interludes and business meetings are a sham in comparison to what’s troubling you subliminally about the story. Those pesky dilemmas never cease. They even sneak into your dreams. No problem, right? You’re in control of the situation. You think? Wait until you loose control of your characters and they begin acting on their own without your omniscient guidance!
It’s an odds on favorite you’ll distrust this and waist time, but there’s no denying that you have created real characters when they can stand up to their creator and do whatever they please. It’s horrible! They might do things that you personally would avoid. Relax, it’s okay, they’re not you! You wonder how could you fall in love with imaginary characters? A hint: They are no longer imaginary! They’re accompanying you 24/7.
Learn to listen to your characters. Don’t ever put words into their mouth! Hold it! What are they feeling when they speak. They will tell you. They’re real individuals wrestling with a problem you have created for them. Let them work it out. Your characters need to be free of your control. They will always get it right.
There’s a secret way to further open the channel of communication with your characters. Lie in bed each night and relax. Clear away the day’s events from your mind. Then just as you are abut to fall asleep, visualize your favorite character, or any character in your narrative that might need further building. Then gradually fall asleep with your character. You will be amazed what you will know when you awaken in the morning.
Additionally, there’s an exercise that enables the writer to truly listen to his or her characters. It’s called eavesdropping! Begin listening to every conversation, especially the ones when someone speaks to you. Pay attention. What’s going on with the speaker? Observe the face, the hands and the gestures. There’s much more happening than the words you hear.
Underneath their dialogue is an emotional feeling that might actually belie what’s being said. If you hear, “that’s ‘okay,’ you may discover contrary emotions. There could be horribly painful feelings that shout anything but ‘okay.’ Observe the telltale signs of insecurity, such as anxiously grasping the thumb inside the palm of the hand? Be fully there, observant and listening? Now look at the eavesdropped conversation from your character’s point of view. As hard as it might be, you must remember: the story is not about you. Your characters will respond for themselves, and it will not be your response, but theirs.
One exception: You must have at one time experienced the emotions you plan to write about. For instance, have you known the emotional turmoil of being hopelessly lost in the fever and chaos of love? Only to have it slip through your fingers? Remember the horrible pains of jealousy? Do you recall how you wanted to hurt the person who took your love away? Could you possibly recall the anguish, the torment, even the torture you endured? Can you admit now that you were irrational? If so, that’s very good! You can collect on those painful feelings to write an incredible story.
In the same way, have you ever been bullied by someone bigger, more important or more powerful? Did you suffer helpless rage? Did you take them on anyway? Now is the time to cash in on painful experiences. Only there’s a difference. You are dragging someone you really care about through a difficult situation, and you can’t help. You can only trust they will get it right. You fret and worry, but there’s no panacea. You’re following from behind, chewing your fingernails and watching, recording and trusting!
At the end of the narrative, when your work is finished, don’t expect elation. Instead be prepared for horrible sadness. You will have lived in a different time and in a different place with very real personalities. You might astonish friends and family with comments such as, “I’ll have the Porter House steak, blackened on the outside and blue on the inside, the way Jane requests it after her Iron Man contests. It’s interesting how some characters are always there. They’re that real.
Writing fiction is secretly Zen’s journey into meditation, wisdom and enlightenment? The experience never ends although the story does. Expect to be troubled with nostalgia until you climb back in the Director’s Chair and begin a new narrative. Only now, you might have tender loving support from some curious former characters.
C. Michael Bennis is a former toy and advertising industry exec. He lives in Tucson, Arizona. He has completed five novels. The sixth, Ralph’s Place II, will be released in March 2018. .