Let Your Characters Write The Story II: How to Listen to Your Characters

Last week, I posed the question, Why not let your characters write the story for you? I mean, think about it. Who knows the story better than they do, anyway? On Wednesdays this month, we’re advocating being lazy while the fictional people do all the heavy lifting. If you want to catch up on the first post, you can find it here: Let Your Characters Write the Story.

Okay, let’s talk nuts and bolts. How do you get the characters to write the story, anyway?

It boils down to these four steps:

  1. Get a story started. Any way. Any how.
  2. As soon as your first character shows up, resist the urge to create his story for him.
  3. Listen to your deepest instincts, guided by everything you know about the character, and let those instincts guide all your decisions.
  4. Put all your instincts through a trial period to make sure it really is the character talking and not, in fact, you dominating his story.

Today we’re covering the first three steps.

Start the Story

Start with some inspiration. The conversation you overheard in the cafe. The little old lady you saw in the park. The dream you had last night.

Somewhere in that story idea is a character. Your first notion of this character will probably be vague, but if you stop and think about it, there will be something special or distinctive or unique that hits you about this person right away.

Think of somebody you know well. Now think back to the day you met him or her. Try to remember your very first impression.

You’ll have something like that the moment you meet a new character, too.

Don’t Be Rude

It’s not your job to tell your new character who he or she is or what he or she is like. As a novelist, yes, that would be your job–to create the characters. But as a Ghost Writer of Biographies about Fictional People, it’s your job to be quiet and observe. Let the characters tell you who they are.

Now, just to put things in perspective: Say you really are meeting a new person for the first time. You shake hands and exchange names and stand around talking about the weather.

And then, quite randomly, you tell your new acquaintance, “So, you grew up in a ghetto and had to overcome a drug problem before you started getting anywhere in your life.”

The person’s mouth drops open. Then he bristles.

“It’s okay!” you insist. “I think it’s great, everything you’ve overcome to get to where you are now. Vice-president of an air line and happily married with five kids. Though your teen getting arrested the other night for drunk driving must have been embarrassing.”

Okay, unless you’re totally inept in social settings, this is probably not a real conversation you would ever have. Seriously, who are you to tell someone you just met his or her life story?

Along a similar vein … what if you were to afford your characters the same respect you’d give to a flesh-and-blood human being? What if you approached them with the attitude that they already know their story, and are in no way dependent on you to tell it to them?

If you want to write their story, you’ll have to learn it from them first. But don’t be bossy, and don’t be a know-it-all. Forget about being the Author in Ultimate Control. Otherwise, your affronted characters will turn around and walk away like the above person who didn’t  grow up in a ghetto and whose teen has never done anything worse than back the car into a garbage can. (And by now, the last thing he would ever tell you is that he’s been unemployed for the past nine months.)

Relax. Breathe. Loosen up. Take a passive attitude rather than an active attitude. Keep your mouth shut and your eyes and ears open.

Listen to Your Instincts

Now we get to the meat of the matter: How your characters are going to tell you anything.

Ask yourself a question about the character. Whatever you most want to know. Maybe you’re interested in finding out what he looks like. Or where he grew up. Or whether or not he has a family. Or what his job is. Go ahead. Pose a question.

Now write down a list of every possible answer. (My lists are usually five to ten points long–longer if I start adding random, crazy stuff that can’t possibly be true.)

Remember I said there was probably something about the character that struck you right away? That’s going to be your guiding light. The first thing you truly knew about your character. Keep it in mind while you review your list. It was your initial, untainted gut instinct about the character and will cast its shadow over your list like a sundial.

Wait for a subtle but strong instinct to draw you toward a particular item on your list.

I call it the gut instinct. But what is it really? It’s a sensation you can’t shake that this  option is true, and all the rest are perfectly wrong. Don’t confuse the feeling with a shiny, bells-and-whistles thrill over a new idea. It’s something deeper than that. A weighty sense of certainty.

Congratulations! Your character has answered one of your questions and you’ve now learned something new about your character. You’ve filled in his or her picture a little bit more.

What if you get no response at all? Don’t sweat. It just means the character isn’t ready to talk about it yet. (He’s probably so deeply ashamed of being unemployed for so long, he doesn’t even want to talk to his biographer about it yet.) Shelve that question for now and move on to a different one.

For You Plot-Driven Writers

I’m lookin’ at you, Carrie. (My writing partner here at Indie Plot Twist).

As previously confessed, I am a character-driven writer. As such, I test all my story ideas through the prism of my characters, their personalities, and everything I’ve already established about them.

However, the root of this method is not so much about getting in touch with your characters as it is getting in touch with your subconscious–which somehow seems to know the story before you even write it. Even as a plot-driven writer, there’s no reason you can’t use “gut testing” to good effect.

Brainstorm lists of options. Then listen to your instincts. Wait for that sense that THIS is the right choice, and all the others are simply wrong.

Homework Assignment

  • Grab a young story idea. One you’ve barely had a chance to develop yet. Assume the attitude of an observer.
  • Now ask yourself the first question that comes to mind.
  • Make lists of options or do some research or act out a few scenes.
  • Wait for a deep-seated instinct to point the way.

But here’s where it gets tricky: It can be really hard sometimes to tell the difference between a true instinct pointing the way, and just a sense of excitement over a thrilling new idea. In other words, the character talking, or you talking. Next week, we’re going to talk about how to make sure it’s your characters leading the way, and not you.

Because as soon as you commandeer the story, don’t be surprised if your characters walk out in a huff. Or murder you in your sleep. I’ve had a few close scrapes myself …

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