I could not have maintained my passion for my first story, had I been forced to decideÂ a list of “truths” about my hero before continuing to develop the plot. I don’t know if it’s a common issue, but I don’tÂ find working withÂ characters easy.
The first time I wrote dialog, it felt invasive; as if I was forcing a stranger to say something. How rude!
I got over it. Get over it. Here are some tactics to try.
At first,Â I could only whisper suggestions at the character from across the room; I was that intimidated.Â So I stopped trying to force conversations andÂ focused on drama; IÂ only used wordsÂ and responses to heighten the drama. WithoutÂ braking toÂ giveÂ charactersÂ a chance to speak, they had just timeÂ to spit out a few words.
In time, I developedÂ confidence: coherant people populated the story, so much so that they not only spoke, they “took control” and their responses differed from what I’d planned. They weren’t as perfect or as woodenÂ as they’d been to start and my heroÂ grew asÂ she faltered, like she does in this sequence from my story, Cookie and the Suit:
Thinking quickly, Dayton checked their luggage hadn’t cut loose (it hadn’t), nothing threatened to trap them in the plane, should they nose into the ground and flip (it didn’t), and there was no loose debris in the cockpit to become a projectile. What more can I do? She caught herself casting wildly about for heroic actions or pithy bon mots.Â What did the crazy suit say? ‘Less is more.‘ Glad it dawned on her before she opened her mouth, she sat back and let herself be overwhelmed.
The acid-white light hung screaming in the sky, turbines moaned, Doppler zoomed, wind buffeted. She ignored the maelstrom. In the past few days, she’d been through explosions and collisions, heard shrieking metal, smelled burnt rubber and dodged explosive detritus. Watching Rein, she took note. Panic was not an option.Â She distracted herself enoughÂ that their impact on a secondary road crept up and shook her by surprise. Ah, Rein.Â “Thank you for flying the friendly skies,” he ground out.Â Â They lurched to a dead stop and bounced back onto the tail. Rein had cut the engines and Dayton realized the roaring silence that always seemed to follow these adventures signaled it was over.
Casually popping her door, she collapsed bonelessly to the ground below and retched. Equally calmly, she accepted a hankie from Rein, wiped her mouth and retrieved her luggage. Shaken and stirred but successfully standing, she said, “let’s make that meeting” and waited to see what new hell he’d lead her into.
The most importantÂ step for the development ofÂ my characters is to let myself fall in love with them. I’ve takenÂ time to play – writing encounters with other characters or with random people on the street, colleages, maybe a waitress or bartender, to developÂ their responses until I can hear them speak, to watch them interact until IÂ spot theirÂ idiosynchrasies: does he stutter when he lies?Â does sheÂ flip her hair when she don’t care?
A great thing about empathy is that once I feel emphatic about how aÂ character would react,Â I can start to articulate their strengths and goals.
The rough part about empathizing is that it’s harder to impose a weakness – stupidity, arrogance, overblown empathy, narcissism, judginessÂ – on your hero. To crippleÂ your creation.Â Â But if there are no weaknesses then there’s no internal element for them to overcome.
So kick a hole in your hero’s chest and give them room to breathe.
It’s tough (for me) to create someone whose day-to-day I haven’t observed orÂ experienced, but there’s a danger:Â if your characters come from your own special culture (large corporation, farming family, political powerhouse, deeply religious), the realistic detail you take for granted might confuse your reader, who needs an introduction to the context.
For instance, if you grew up in a loud, large, passionate family, shouting matches may crop up frequently in your story – that’s okay, but at some point, you might be surprised to discover that casual readers from quieter backgrounds consider these passages disturbing or frightening.Â It’s important to know – and instilling scenes with terror or passion orÂ the warmth of familyÂ through your memories of a casual Saturday night is a terrific tool, once you know you have it!
For me, people are about their occupation, including how they pay the bills, how they spend their free time, and how they treat their neighbors.
I couldn’t think of anything other than my currentÂ job for my first hero. It’sÂ a shame for a couple of reasons: first, when you know your setting too well, you tend to forget what your audience will consider boring as heck.Â Technical writing is not a snazzy occupation (unless you are one). It’s also a shame that I didn’tÂ take the time to list the adventures I’d never include on a resume before investing all my time in a story about a tech writer;Â I could’ve drafted a much richer a story, right from the start.
I’ve included a partial list of my own (below) to show you how even trivial (and negative) experiences give you the basis for what others will find an insteresting story. Give it a shot, you’ve got a broader range than you think!
SomeÂ life moments I can draw from:
- Working for a pediatric gynecologist, cried over the tiny patients
- Tossed my first car off of a cliff; my brand new license didn’t prepare me for the first black ice of a Canadian winter
- Professionally recorded voicemail greetings for a cathouse; local ordinances preventedÂ them from answeringÂ the phones for a few weeÂ hoursÂ in the morning
- Asked for (and was given) my dream job – just because I spoke up during a corporate tour (thanks
Planned, excavated, and implemented a true, 4-season garden
listened to colleagues make millions on Amazon stock in the first few days of publicÂ trading whileÂ working the help desk at IBM
Developed and delivered a book and a month-long course about Help Desk best practices
Wrangled computers for the head of Archangel Productions, on-site asÂ one of Neil Diamond’s roadies
Attended and later administrated a camp for teen scientists/entrepreneurs
- Ran for school president
- Helped deliver my best friend’sÂ firstborn in a bathtub
Showed champion dogs I bred
Decorated a room with Best in Show ribbons
Attended class at Harvard
- Made the Dean’s List top of the class
Lobbied my friend, the Dean, to permit me to span three different levels of academic probation and was stranded there for a few franticÂ months in imminent danger of expulsion
Travelling alone, watched the sun set on the Merlion at Sentosa Island, Singapore,Â ate a sackful of fresh salac fruit on the beach at Jimbaran Bay, and kayaked Nusa Dua in Bali
- Attended classes at the Unites States Air Force Academy with a “PRESS” sticker on my hat as a special visitor of my accomplished cousin, who was a graduating cadet
Travelled Western Canada on the back of a motorcycle
- Visited hounds housed in ancient, still active hunting kennels in some of England’s most exclusive private castles
- Camped the Canadian Rockies alone at -40’C
Lunched withÂ the Canadian astronauts and their wives
- Alongside Navy Seals, trained TSA agents to find IEDs using leading edge technology
CorrectedÂ a former student’s resume and passed it to my sister, a hiringÂ director, which landed him a coveted job,Â saving his home. Allowed him to sign me onÂ a contract I didn’t want so he could feel his “debt”Â to me had been repaid;Â met the love of my life the first day on that job
- SnowshoedÂ a canyon when every bootstep caused the snow to audibly crack, sending a faultline snaking hundreds of yards and reflecting aÂ tiny bit ofÂ the energy of that crack back to the side of your boot.Â Lunched in the middle of that canyon, watching avalanches crash down the mountains every few minutes, 360′ around us. Spent the next four weeks oiling my face with Neosporin to heal 2nd degree radiation burns that caused my face to swell, turn orange as a pumpkin, and peel off in sheets.