Nurturing the “Writer – Character” Relationship for Empowered Storytelling
I recently had a conversation with another writer and we agreed that when the writing flows, it’s more like channeling than writing. We also talked about how writers don’t really “create” anything, but rather are a conduit for stories that already exist…somewhere. Characters, we’ve both learned, exist in their own realm and one of our biggest jobs is to listen to them. They know their story.
If you’re not a writer, this will all seem very far-fetched and probably cause you to wonder if writers are a bit out of our minds.
Well, maybe we are. But maybe that’s also why we are writers. Because we can sense, hear and “channel” the stories that non-writers read, watch, are touched by and remember – sometimes for centuries.
Writers are the First Trustee of the Story. We meet the characters first. We develop the trust relationship with them that allows us to capture and develop their story in the most powerful way possible. We then have to translate that relationship to actors, directors and an entire crew of creative professionals who will do much of their work based on various aspects of the characters and story.
Being first in this process is an honor. One we shouldn’t take lightly. And it takes a certain amount of intuitive sensitivity, open-mindedness and a willingness to invest time, emotions and thought to nurture the “writer-character” relationship. It also takes patience, humility and a willingness to let yourself be changed by the process.
Here are some thoughts to help nurture your relationship with your characters:
You are Chosen
I believe that Stories choose their writers. And you can feel it in your spirit, right? You know when a story is something meant for you. So arm yourself with the belief that you were chosen to write the story and that no one else can take your place in this process. Another writer can work on the story, but she’ll write it as her story. Only you can bring yourself to the story. Which leads me to the next point.
You Bring Yourself to the Story, for a Reason
The stories that choose you, do so for a reason. Maybe they were preordained in a former life. Maybe they just sense that you have the right sensitivity to their subject matter. Maybe they flow out of your own spiritual experience. Whatever the reason, the stories that find you do so because they believe you are the right person to listen to their story, understand them and express it to the world. It is because of something special about you – and this covers assigned stories, too – (you don’t think you just got that assignment by chance, do you?) – you are an integral part of the process for what you bring to the story. When you start to wonder ‘who am I to write this?’ remember that the story and characters have faith in you.
At the Same Time, it’s Not Your Story
On the flip side, it’s not your story. It doesn’t belong to you. You can’t own it. The story belongs to the characters. And you need to respect that. That means you treat the story and the characters with respect. You protect it. You don’t let what’s sacred to the characters or story get pummeled out of it (to the degree you can control it). You guard what is essential to their nature and you let them guide the process. You are a conduit, a channel, a connection between the realm of Story and human understanding.
Let the Characters Lead
Many writers swear by their process of creating detailed character bios, interviewing each character with a long bullet list of questions. I don’t know about you, but I sure wouldn’t like to have someone sit down and interrogate me – particularly about painful or sensitive subjects and every detail of what makes me, me.
You can’t just make stuff up about a character either. Not a real one anyway (and by real, I mean one that will ring true to the human spirit because you were sensitive enough to let the character reveal him or herself to you in a meaningful, organic way.) Characters need to trust you, remember? You have to treat them with respect and trust them, too. Don’t interrogate.
Listen and keep listening. Ask for more. Listen at every draft and keep listening all the way through. It’s all built on trust and whether or not a character feels safe enough to reveal something that puts him or her in a vulnerable position. Be strong for your characters and be gentle, too. Let them and their stories affect you. You are not only the First Trustee, but you are also the First Audience. Let their story move you emotionally. Let yourself be the first one the Story impacts. Let it resonate in you.
Story is Revealed, Not Created
If you make up a story, the audience will know it’s made up. The human spirit can sense authenticity. If you allow the story to reveal itself to you, it will touch people in ways that you never imagined. Story is revealed. Layer by layer. Many writers swear by outlines. I find that while I generally have an idea of how a story ends, the details of the story are revealed as I write them. Later, after the first draft (when much of what is sacred has been revealed), outlining can help in shaping the story structure.
To me, if a writer knows the story well enough to outline it before he or she has interacted with the characters, I highly suspect it’s being made up. In these cases, either the writer has already spent considerable time listening to the characters and has a good grasp of what their story and nature is – or she’s trying to “force” a story. Don’t force. Listen and write it down.
Be Ready to Be a Parent, Counselor, Guide, Coach and Collaborator
Characters are troubled people. People in pain, wounded, lost, seeking their way to well-being and wholeness. You will need to be a nurturing parent, guide, friend, coach, counselor and someone they feel confident enough to trust with their dark secrets. You’re going to have to champion them on, encourage them, listen, know what part of their backstory not to share with the world, understand their fears, know when to push them to go deeper, know when to back off, and collaborate with them to get the story told, on paper, on film, in a way that connects to the audience. It’s not always going to be an easy process or an easy relationship to carry.
All of this comes out of two things: your ultimate belief that their story is meant to be shared and your commitment to going the long-haul with your characters.
Collaborate with your characters. You have a full cast of character-spirits who will eventually be represented by actors. See your lead characters as collaborators in the creative process. Discuss with them how to shape the story. Recently in a script, I knew we needed another antagonistic force. I discussed it with the lead characters. They agreed. We decided the antagonist should come in the form of an environmental group. You know, protesters, marching around with signs, right? (no offense, environmentalists). Well, guess what? The environmentalists showed up as a rough-cut biker gang. Much “scarier” than any of us had anticipated. But it was the edge the story needed. And as the story has been revised, the lead biker character has deepened to reveal a far more dangerous side of himself. Just what we needed for some well-placed conflict. The biker gang is now a key part of the story. It always had been, we just hadn’t known it.
Know What You Can Craft, and What You Can’t
As the First Trustee, you step into the role of writer and you also step into the First Director’s role. First, in that you are shaping the pre-film. You are responsible for giving the story everything it needs to survive on its own and be strong enough to survive the collaborative process to come. You must make decisions that shape the story.
You must make decisions for the story while including the lead characters in the process. Seeking feedback is important. But be careful to guard what you know is sacred to the characters and to the essence of the story. Too many outside voices influencing the story will result in a story that loses its magic. Guard against wanting to be a “great” writer at the risk of losing the magic of the story. To hold on to the magic, you need to own your role as the final decision-maker. Consult with trusted sources, consult with the characters, take what fits and enhances the story, but don’t lose sight of the core story or the core nature of the characters.
Let feedback push you to dig deeper, let it push you to push your characters to dig deeper. But remember, it’s the Story that matters – not your ego as a writer. Every story is different and needs its own space to develop. Honor that space.
You can craft a story and change it until it no longer is the story you started out with. You need to know the spine of the story and the nature of your characters to ensure you don’t lose their Story in the process. Art is art because of the artist. Remember that you are the artist.
Believe that There is a Purpose
Why do we write stories? For an audience, right? You can say that all you want, but writers write because we feel most alive and spiritually connected to Source when we are writing. I don’t know a writer who would stop writing even if he or she knew their work would never sell. We write because it is who we are. Channelers. Conduits. Because we have the ability to be a First Audience. Because of how every story we are given shapes and changes us, too. It’s thrilling, it’s adventurous. It’s challenging and it’s meaningful. There is a purpose for it, for being that connection between Story Realm and the human consciousness.
Don’t Worry, You’re Not Insane
Writers are not insane. Like many artists, we have a unique connection to the Spirit World, to realms that many people are not sensitive to. Like psychics, we can sense and intuit things about Story and Characters that others do not “read.” But that doesn’t make us crazy. And we shouldn’t be ashamed amongst ourselves to admit that this is simply part of how we work.
It’s a beautiful gift and responsibility to be Storytellers. I believe all art, music and writing comes from a Higher Source. We are surrounded by the beauty of nature that we cannot explain, is it so hard to believe that those who are called to be artists have an ability to tap into that same Source? Characters in a Story are no different than the Notes in a Symphony. They are given to the artist, shaped into a powerful form by the artist and gifted to the an audience.
Even if that audience is just the artist himself.