Category Archives: Characters
You write about boldness, trust, and courage in creative work. What do these mean to you and where do you struggle?
I think the greatest struggle, and perhaps the one we all ultimately face, is having the courage and boldness to trust ourselves. We grow up taught that other people hold the authority to approve or disapprove of us and our creative expressions. Maybe this comes from the grading system in schools, I don’t know. But we quickly learn to create something, offer it to the appropriate “authority” and wait to see whether or not they validate it (and us). We hand over what should be our authority alone to say “yes, we have created what we intended, it is good and pure, and it matters because it is of us.” I grew up with this like everyone else and I am still climbing out of the system. I’ve spent years giving others a voice – individuals and corporations – and it has taken me a long time to put my own voice in my own creative work, and put it out there and let it stand for itself. So this is where I struggle most and what I find to ultimately be the most important. Trusting your own opinion more than anyone else’s. Not that you shouldn’t seek and heed feedback from trusted advisors; but ultimately, you have to give that approval to yourself and your work. And that is very challenging to do.
Talk a little bit about tenacity.
Tenacity is really just refusing to give up when it gets tough or you get slammed with self-doubt and fear. It’s a term of endurance and like any long-distance activity, it means there are going to be times when you stop and rest, but when you’re done resting you get up and continue. It’s really a matter of not giving yourself the option to not finishing what you started out to do. People need a motivation that means something to them in order to make that kind of commitment. As a writer, it’s the writing process and the relationships with characters that are my rewards. It’s knowing when I start out that the characters and story are going to change me as much as it will change them. So there is this wonderful, rich, fertile soil that stories rise up from and all this activity and effort and growth happening in the writer and characters underneath the soil, if you will. I love that. I love knowing that when you trust your characters it’s going to pay off. I have spent the last two years on a feature drama script, and the year prior to that on a novel – and I can unequivocally say that I am bolder, stronger, and more willing to step up to my dreams today because of having spent the last three years in the presence of amazingly tenacious and vulnerable characters. When you think about it, tenacity is really the core requirement for a protagonist and antagonist. Without that the conflict and tension disappears. The same is true for our lives.
What’s the difference between quitting and letting go?
Quitting comes from a place of defeat. Letting go comes from a place of power. I’m not playing on words. The result of either one is cessation. But the intention is entirely different. When you quit it’s because of fear or exhaustion – either way, you’re not coming from a place of empowerment. When you let go of something, it’s life-giving. It releases you from what has inhibited you, what has held you under water, and the result is that your spirit bounces back up to the surface and you breathe. And sometimes breathing is more important than anything else you could do. Letting go involves trust. Trust in the Universe, trust in yourself. It’s a result of growth. Either we outgrow our dreams and desires or they outgrow us; either way, letting go opens the doors to possibilities. And that’s where you want to be. Open, breathing, relaxed, trusting. That’s when the Universe can give you more than you ever imagined in far more aligned ways than you could orchestrate. Ultimately, when you let go, you do so with faith that no matter what happens, you’re going to be okay.
As writers, we grow by the process of pouring out story, rewriting, sifting feedback, making decisions, and listening to our gut instincts. And while we mature in our craft, we also mature in spirit. We’re a privileged bunch: we have access to these great mentors we call “Characters.” We spend enormous amounts of time in their lives, watching, listening, and seeing the consequences of their decisions. But have you ever reflected on what they’ve taught you as a human being?
If you’ve read my articles on characters, then you know I believe they exist in a realm of their own, they exert a realistic presence to the writer, one that we try to capture and convey to audiences. They are not figments of imagination or made up or invented. And they deserve respect. One, for their courage in making themselves utterly vulnerable to us as indecisive, insecure, sometimes annoyingly demanding writers; and two, because they often have very tough stories to carry and work through. If you ever dare think that characters are there just to serve you as a writer or are a means to facilitate your writing career, you better think twice. Because you’re missing out on a huge blessing.
Characters give back to us as much as we give to them. And if we pay attention, we can end up not just being better writers because of them, but better people, too.
So what have I learned from the characters who have come into my writing world?
- Be bold in going after what you want. Don’t let anyone talk you out of what you know in your heart is right for you.
- Move. Take action. When you run into an obstacle, find a way around or through it; whatever you do, keep moving toward your goal.
- Let yourself be vulnerable enough to trust someone implicitly.
- You’re stronger than you think you are. Always.
- The tough times in life aren’t without purpose.
- Healing happens when someone deeply listens and affirms that your pain matters. (Sometimes you have to be that person to yourself.)
- Giving up isn’t an option. Letting go sometimes is.
- Silence is the loudest form of communication.
- There is more grace out there for us than we know.
- We don’t have time to waste. Life is now.
What have you learned from your characters? Comment and let’s explore.
What do you bring to a story when you begin?
There’s a split camp between writers who outline and plot before they write and those who don’t. At the end of the day, what matters is that your method works – so I’m not going to approach this as a right vs. wrong debate. What I’m interested in is how Stories choose us and how we work with Characters to tell their stories. Every writer is unique and so is their writing process. I suspect that how Stories and Characters choose to interact with writers is highly and deeply personal. No doubt there is a underlying spiritual alignment. There’s also an alignment with how a writer receives, processes and moves through the world. Which camp you fall into most likely has to do with your way of moving in the world. Or, in other words, how you best communicate with the Storyworld.
Outside of the writing world (which only sees the finished product), writing appears to be logical, the author in full control. Fictional stories and characters are make-believe. The writer gets an idea, creates interesting characters, figures out what is going to happen (makes it up??) and writes it down. To the outside world, an ingenious for storytelling appears to be unique to writers. People generally credit writers as the originators of the story and my, aren’t we clever for coming up with such fascinating stories!
Ha. Stop right there.
Originators of the story? Let’s say you get a story idea. Where does that idea come from? It’s given to you, isn’t it? It appears in your mind. Can we really claim that we originated it? I don’t think so.
The Outliner/Plotters – Are You Really In Control?
If you are in the outline/plot camp, you’ll take that idea, mull it around, think about who the characters should be, create them based on well-established psychological archetypes, then decide what is going to happen at every plot point. You’ll have a solid idea of the complete story and the character arcs from start to finish. Then you start writing.
In this position, you are in control of the story. This is where we often hear writers say “then the story and characters took on a life of their own.”
What is that phenomena? You discover as you’re writing within your established framework that you aren’t quite as in control as you thought you were. Characters “come to life” and start saying and doing things that you hadn’t anticipated. The story may take a turn that works far better than your pre-determined plot point. (And if this doesn’t happen to you, you may be trying to force a story into existence. You’re not trusting the process enough to receive what your story has to give you.)
I believe and it’s been my experience that characters don’t “take on a life of their own” because they already have one to begin with. They exist in their own realm. They are fully formed and as unique and individual as you and I. You did not actually create them. Yes, you worked hard to figure out what archetype to use, what backstory to give them, what color of eyes they should have – and that gave you the perception that you’ve made them up. What if, in this process, what those characters were actually doing was revealing themselves to you in a way that your analytical mind could embrace?
Outlining and plotting are tools that help writers organize. They are a method for interacting with the story and characters. A way for the Story and Characters to work with your mind in a way that makes sense to you as a writer.
The Freestylists – Control Isn’t an Issue
In the freestyle camp, as I’ll call it (and where I reside), you get an idea for a story. It may not even be an idea. It may be a scene with a character or two in it. You listen into that unseen realm. You get glimpses of who the characters are. You get glimpses of a thing or two that happens. You may even see the end first. A lead character moves into your intuitive realm and you start having conversations. You sense their presence, their emotional state, and you listen, listen, listen. Like anyone else, they don’t reveal themselves to you in their entirety up front. You’re still a stranger, after all. You start building a relationship of trust. You may have entire scenes played out in detail to you. You take notes.
Then you start writing. And what is revealed on the page is a surprise to you. It flows out as if you are simply a channel. You listen, you write. You write, it emerges. You are deeply touched by who your characters are, what they go through, the conversations they have with other characters. You are a witness. You realize that they trust you. You’re not just a writer, but counselor, friend, confidante, coach, guide. They are, in turn, invested in your artistic career.
You are not in control of the characters or the story; only of the writing. Their story will be far bigger, far deeper, extend back further and out farther than what you will put on the page. As the writer, you have to make decisions about how to tell the story in the most effective way; yet, it’s never your story to tell.
If you work with your characters, if you trust them, they will collaborate with you. They have insight into what you should do. They’ll work with you to make those decisions. (We talk a lot about a writer’s isolation and forget that our characters are with us every step of the journey. We’re not as alone as we think.)
This method is a natural alignment for writers who move through life by intuition, who move in spiritual realms, who are comfortable trusting the process as open-ended and uncertain.
Either Way, Characters Need Your Trust & You Need Theirs
No matter which process you use, you’re going to work with characters. You don’t have to believe that they are anything more than a figment of your imagination (though I would encourage you to question where the things you imagine come from) to tell their stories. Yet, if you do open up to the possibility that they are more than meets the eye, you will find a rich storyworld where you don’t have to be in charge of everything. Your characters will carry responsibility for who they are, what they do and what they won’t do. Sure, you’ll collaborate with them to shape scenes to be most effective; you’ll cut, you’ll change, you’ll ask them to do a scene another way; maybe have some characters step in or out of the written story; but in the end, it will remain indelibly theirs.
And that’s why we write, isn’t it? To give characters a voice, to reveal their stories, and allow them to touch us.
It gets to all of us. We pin “procrastination” on our tendency to avoid doing the work. Work we feel passionate about. Work we spend months, years, sweating away (okay, maybe not actually sweating, but definitely toiling) in silence with no guarantee anyone will ever read it. No guarantee of financial success or fame or that anything will actually get easier, and a high likelihood that there will be rejection and dislike and questions about how could we write something like that and how we’ve offended some people.
We sit at the screen, check email, Twitter, Facebook (I’ve whittled away entire days — good, open, available writing days — just watching my timeline). We pay bills. Check bank accounts. Find cleaning to do. Organize. Make more coffee. Change music. Eat. Stare out the window at branches being thrashed mercilessly…
We all have days like this. I’m not going to drone on about “writer’s block” or “finding the muse” – you can find plenty of perfectly useful, distracting articles on those. No. Everything is about overcoming procrastination. Beating it into submission (ourselves, actually). Forcing. Talking yourself into or out of things. Facing your fears.
What if the days when the writing isn’t flowing and it feels as natural as putting your hand in fire, are intended to be that way?
What if there’s nothing to fight against? What if, instead of thinking we should be able to create, create, create as consistently as we can sit at an office desk and do work by rote, we accepted that creativity has rhythms? That we need to heed those rhythms.
That there is, actually, nothing wrong at all.
You’ve had days when the writing pours through you…faster than you can type, right? Time vanishes. You begin, then wake up from your storyworld 10, 12, 14 hours later, completely surprised to find that so much time has gone by. You’re not even tired — the work so closely aligns with your spirit that you slip back into the essence of timelessness. Those days are gold. Those days you are the channel. The work is the artist.
The work is the artist.
What if on those days when you just can’t bring yourself to begin, it’s not about you at all?
We like to think we are the creators of the work; when in reality, we are receivers, guardians and guides. If we would move out of the way and give heed to the fact that writing in a storyworld is a collaboration between our characters and ourselves, we’d have more grace for those days when our characters need a break, or when we do.
The avoidance? What if it has nothing to do with you and everything to do with whether or not the characters are ready? (Let’s face it, it’s not easy to be a character who has to spend most of his or her time in conflict, pain and fighting. Characters get worn out and need down time, too.) What if it has to do with the Universe needing time to arrange a few thoughts, emotions, reveal something through something that you don’t have access to at this moment?
Granted, there are days when it is your fear that holds you back. Those days you may need to… just begin.
But on those other days when you can’t pinpoint why you can’t get at it – consider that it may not be you at all. Then make a decision to step away from the work. Do something else. It’ll be ready when you come back.
As writers, we spend the majority of our time in revision. It’s where we truly get to know our characters and ourselves. It’s a time of intense concentration that requires different skill sets than first drafts. Revision is where we hone our craft. Where we wrestle. Where we experience the deepest depths, darkest fears, brightest illuminations. It is the real work of a writer and where writers and characters need the most support.
If you’re like most, revision is never done until you decide it’s done. Story is one of the only art forms that can always be improved, changed, re-directed, given new form. Because we spend so much time in revision, there are a few things we can be mindful of during the process.
It’s okay to feel lost.
We think we should always know where we’re going, don’t we? We get critical, trusted feedback; we take time to listen to our guidance on that feedback; we feel strong pressure to know where the story should be going from fade in to fade out. Some people swear by their ability to plot out their entire story from beginning to end. If that works for you, that’s wonderful. It doesn’t work for me. Story unfolds as I write it. I have a general understanding (usually) of the beginning and the end, with glimpses of points along the way. But for the most part, I don’t know what’s going to happen until it happens to the characters. I don’t know what they’re going to say until they say it. That may sound very chaotic, but for me, it works. I am the container that the story flows from. I give it shape and form, a place for the characters to dwell. Knowing up front where we’re all going? Not going to happen. Feeling lost and completely blind at times is just part of the art form. Which leads me to the next point.
Time is irrelevant, even with deadlines.
You’ve got a deadline – what do you do? Keep working. But work without striving. If you strive, you’ll lock down your ability to be receptive. Being receptive is 90% of your job. Keep an open mind toward time and understand that you can’t force it. So, take breaks. Step away. Listen to different music. Be present and available, there to receive. Keep a mindset that you’re on duty. Some of that time, you’ll only be on call. Waiting for the characters, waiting for something (you may never know what) to occur where the next scene or thought formulates. You may need to sit at your screen and just write. You’ll get a feel for the story’s rhythm, how the characters prefer to work with you, and the ebb and tide of your own process as a writer. Just flow, don’t force.
Characters need you more than ever to be perceptive.
Revision is stressful on you and even more stressful on your characters. If you’ve got a solid draft down, they’ve done considerable work with and for you. They’ve poured their energy and emotions into it far more than you have. And let’s face it, most of story is conflict and that’s a tough energy to sustain and endure. Give them a break. You’ve got to get characters to work with you, even if they disagree at first at the changes you (as the Story Director) are asking them to make. Include them in your decision-making process and they’ll surprise you with their willingness to dig deeper. Your protagonist and antagonist carry the most weight and should have the most influence on you. If you think of your characters as a cast (and bear in mind the actors who will embody their roles) and yourself as the Story Director, you’ll be able to ask characters to do or try new things — to fight harder, to reveal more, to defy each other — with the safety that at the end of the day, they’re all still friends.
Characters need you more than ever to be perceptive. You need to be available, there as coach, confidant, leader, ally, therapist, and witness. You will never work more closely with your characters than you will during revision. Build your team. Be compassionate. Be tough. And remember, no matter what, you’re responsible for making the final decisions.
Doubts are normal and necessary.
We all go through it. Doubts, fears, wondering how we’re ever going to pull this off. We run up against challenges that make us quiver. This happens to every one. Success just makes it worse. Doubts are part of the process and this never changes. But think about it — doubts mean we’ve come to a place that is stretching us to either grow as a writer (and a person) or quit. There are no other options. If you grow, you expand your writing acumen, your craft and your experience.
Your mind and spirit need to disengage.
You’re in the midst of revision on a project you feel passionate about. Time passes unnoticed. You are in your story more than out of it. You think about it all of the time. You push on, keep going. Just stop for a moment. Your mind and spirit need a break. The more engaged you are in revision, the more likely that you’re dealing with characters and scenes that are emotionally trying. To the characters, and to you. These emotions may have little or nothing to do with your non-writing life though. You need space to process them. (If you’re not feeling your character’s emotions, you need to dig deeper, because if you can’t feel them, your reader/viewer won’t either.) Let your character’s emotions flow in and through you, but make sure you let them flow away and out of you as well.
Be patiently persistent.
Take the attitude that you will never give up. If what you’re writing means something to you, then set it in your heart that you will do whatever it takes to nurture it, protect it, support it and carry it into the world. Set it in your heart, too, that the process of writing is the real life of a writer. It’s not the film made, the book published. It’s the act of writing. That’s where your successes arise, that’s where you feel the joy. That’s where you are a writer.