For me, a great story is all about character. Even the most exciting plot will fall flat if the character is dull and one dimensional. I don’t really get hooked, drawn into a story, until I can picture a fully-formed character like a movie in my head. I want to get excited about who they are, share their emotions, see what they see, anticipate the next words out of their mouths. I want to forget I’m reading a made up story. I want to live in the moment with them.
A tall order by any stretch of the imagination.
So when I’m writing I have to ask myself, who is this person I’m writing about? How can I not only make them real to my reader, but real enough to me that I get into their skin and follow them through the story, rather than force them into preconceived plot points? I’m not a writing-into-the-mist type of writer, I believe in outlines and turning points. Which is why I think it’s even more important to really be able to step into my character’s shoes so I don’t end up forcing the story.
When it comes to craft, there are many ways for us to do this – character sketches, detailed histories, pictures of models or actors, combining traits from people we know, even the art of method acting where we immerse ourselves so deeply into the character we use our own life experiences to help us empathize with what they are going through.
I’ve used all of these ideas, but the method acting one is probably my most favorite, and most challenging. Again, because I want my characters to be individual, not just shadows of me. The only way I know how to do this is to be specific, detailed. Not just in their appearance, that’s a given. Use details to show who they are and why. Keep it fresh, go with the unexpected. Like the weight-lifting fireman, rough and rugged, who has the penmanship of a scholar and the heart of a poet. Or the analytical, no-nonsense business woman who loves to cook “by feel” and dances around her apartment in her underwear.
Some of the best characters I’ve ever read made me want to climb into the pages of the book and be a part of their lives….and for awhile at least, I did.