Working With New Characters

Danielle wrote the following post as a guest writer for my blog, Carrie Lynn Lewis Writing. That was back in 2013, before we started Indie Plot Twist.

Danielle’s doing NaNoWriMo this month (you go, Girl!). Since I decided not to do NaNo, I volunteered to cover a couple of her November posts. I intended to write something new. Really, I did.

Then I found this post.

She’s been talking about journaling and description this summer, and this post on developing new characters seemed like a perfect follow up.

So, with no further ado, here’s Danielle’s post. Enjoy!

Working With New Characters

Carrie had a wonderful story premise in Saving Grace: The struggles of a persecuted underground church in future America. Yet she confessed to me that the story had been a problem child for her almost as long as she’d been working on it. (We all get those, don’t we?) She was worn out, but I was still fresh, hopeful, and ignorant. So we made a deal: I would write the outline, and she would bring it to life with her brilliant prose.

Carrie had brainstormed several versions of the story—all of them enticing. The dilemma was what to keep and what to put into the Story Recycle Bin. Finding the real story sounded like the perfect challenge for my personal writing methods, two techniques I call Character Dictation and Play Sessions (or “Skin Diving”). Carrie featured a pair of blog posts about them here and here. The gist is to approach a fictitious character as if he were a real person, get to know him over time, and let him tell his own story.

Working on Saving Grace  has proven to be a learning experience for me—or perhaps a re-learning experience. I’ve been working with the characters from my own WIPs for so long that I can slip into their skin and write from their hearts at the drop of a pin. Saving Grace  has given me the opportunity to brush up my skills at making the acquaintance of a new set of characters. Carrie’s center-stage cast, Anderson, Grace, and Jacob, have taught me two vital lessons so far.

The Power of a Visual
I’ll confess, for the first several months, my work with Carrie’s characters was rocky at best. Try what I might, I couldn’t seem to get through to them. They weren’t coming alive for me—and since I depend on the characters to tell me their story, this dilemma spelled death to the whole project.

The break-through came as an unexpected gift—one of those things God seems to drop into your lap when you least expect it. I was cleaning out my bookcase and ran across a document I had created some years ago—an in-depth character questionnaire. By “in-depth,” I mean thirteen pages of questions designed to bring out every angle of a character’s personality, physical appearance, belief system, speech, mannerisms, upbringing, etc. I was thrilled—and promptly scheduled interviews with the three primary characters of Carrie’s story.

I tackled Anderson first—only because he had been the least resistant to working with me. By the end of the questionnaire, half the questions remained blank—stark testament to the fact that much of my knowledge of Anderson was also a blank. But I filled out one section with surprising ease, despite the fact that I hadn’t given the topic much previous thought.

It was the section on physical appearance. As I filled in one blank after another, he took shape in my mind—not only what he looked like, but how he stood, how he moved, how he communicated through body language. These vital clues enabled me to adopt his stance and to imagine my body as his—in other words, to slip into his skin.

The next thing I knew, I was out of my chair and in the middle of a play session, acting out a scene from the story. Then another. Then another. The rest of the afternoon was marked by intermittent play sessions. I existed half in my world, half in his. Hours later when Anderson finally left me, I felt like a piece of debris ejected from a cyclone. The status quo had shifted. I’d finally connected with one of the characters—and it had all started with simply building a picture of him in my mind.

The Power of Presenting Options
After that first dramatic series of play sessions with Anderson, slipping into his skin became relatively simple and he began to develop that essential feel of reality that I rely on. Nevertheless, the story continued to stagnate. By now, I had spent months with the characters, yet they were telling me precious little about their stories.

My method of taking “dictation” from the characters revolves around what I call the “gut instinct”—a subtle but strong feeling that a certain idea is true to the character and his story. In my own WIPs, I’ve been applying the “gut test” to play sessions, as the characters seem perfectly content to walk up to me and offer ideas.

But for Saving Grace, this was not happening. I was playing the same scenes over and over, rarely with new material. This was no way to find enough events for a whole novel.

The solution to this problem arose out of good old-fashioned daily persistence. I made it my goal to work on Saving Grace every day, whether I had anything to write or not. Mostly I explored all my thoughts in my story journal, knowing that something would eventually emerge from the slush. One day, I found myself making bullet points.

Character could do A, B, C, or D.

Quick gut test. Probably C.

His motive could be W, X, Y, or Z.

Definitely W.

This event could result in A1, B2, or C3 …

Suddenly, a story was taking shape, one small step at a time, one miniature gut test at a time. Like a GPS device for fiction, the characters were leading me through the crossroads of their story.

If you think about it, a close friend—like a character you’ve been working with for a long time—would feel right at home talking to you about what’s going on in his life. But a new acquaintance—a new character—probably won’t walk up to you and start going on about personal incidents. Sometimes, you’ve got to knuckle down and ask. And since a gut instinct is equivalent to a mere “yes” or “no” … well, you’ve got a lot of asking to do.

The process of learning is an epic journey without an end, only milestones. It seems like each cast I work with has something new to teach me, and it’s a journey that thrills me every day.

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