Category Archives: Characters
The premise of most “writing how-to” books is this: writers make up stories. Because they make up stories, writing one really comes down to selecting the right structure, tools and materials to build one. If you read enough of these how-to books, and apply what they preach, anyone can write, right? And even further, for those writers who are stuck, the idea that you can just find the right tool to get unstuck somewhere in these books turns into an endless search for a elusive solution.
What amazes me is that so few writing books stem from the premise that so many writers actually experience: we don’t make up our stories, our stories exist and emerge as themselves.
How many writers have felt that the story “comes alive, with a life of its own” and that “the characters seem to know what they want to say and do”, and that “writing is more like channeling”, etc. , etc. You’ve felt it, right? I certainly do. The idea that my brain has concocted the characters, their personalities, their backstories, their emotional fabric, their pain, their reactions to decisions I don’t even know they’re going to make yet, feels completely foreign to my experience and how I receive stories. Perhaps because the concept of “making something up” involves a conscious decision, i.e., “John’s eyes will be blue, not brown; he’ll be afraid of heights and have a fiery temper.”
If I want to know what John looks like, what he’s afraid of and how he reacts, I have to ask him, listen and watch.
I’m not saying that writers don’t have choices to make and don’t alter details to serve the story. We do. What I am saying is that there is no way I could fabricate a story from scratch. Maybe I’m just not clever enough. My experience is that Stories and Characters present themselves to me, I get glimpses and hints here and there of what is going to happen. But mostly I’m working blind and don’t know what happens until my characters do. Which means the snags I face are not structure, tools and materials, but issues of relationships, trust, intention and communication.
Those aren’t in the books.
I have to spend time with the characters to hear what they have to say, what they’re afraid to say. It’s a journey we travel together. They lead, I follow. They speak, I listen, write it down. If something’s not working, or if there’s a better way to present the emotional fabric of their story, we work it out, try different things. We run into spots where we’re not sure what comes next.
The answers aren’t in the books.
They’re in the writing.
In other words, “results and clarity come from engagement (taking action), not thought.”
And not from endless searches through the next promising writing how-to book. I find the next scene by physically typing on the keyboard as the scene unfolds. I spend time discussing with the characters what the next scene will be, but I don’t always know. The answers sometimes elude me for days, until in some odd, unexpected moment, there it is. But more often than not, I have to go back to the keyboard and just type. Let the characters lead, get in deep water, see how they get themselves out. It’s an organic process. It’s not in the books.
But what about outlining? Treatments? Plotting before you write? Doesn’t a story need to be planned ahead of time so you know where you’re going? You wouldn’t build a house without a blueprint, after all.
Mmm. All good points.
What is the purpose of a house? To have a structurally sound protective environment that remains in place and supports a human lifestyle, right?
What is the purpose of a story? To move the human heart to respond, to open, to feel something.
There is a place for craft and knowing how to use the tools of your trade.
But a writer is more an architect than a carpenter.
And where do architects get their ideas? From listening to the needs and desires of the one who will live in the house. Who lives in the houses of our Stories? (If you said, audience – you’re incorrect.)
Characters live in the houses of our stories.
If you want to be a carpenter-writer, then you’ll end up with a house that some other architect designed and has built before. If you want to be an architect-writer, then you’ll understand why the most important quality to have is the ability to listen deeply into the Storyworld and trust what one hears, feels and intuitively knows. You’ll design and build from there.
You’ll translate stories that pierce the human heart and move us.
Suzanne Kelman wrote a post the other day about falling in “love” with a character. It got me thinking about the emotions that go in and come out of a Story and how we manage that emotional fabric. Now, you may not have fallen in love with your character, but chances are, you’re pretty close to your lead ones. And you should be. The relationships we form with characters have an emotional intimacy to them if for no other reason than the deep trust that exists when characters choose us to tell their stories, then rely on us to help them make it through the telling. Where I digress with many is in the nature of these characters. I do not believe that we “make them up.” I believe characters exist in their own realm.
Whether or not you believe characters are real or made up makes a difference in how you manage the emotional fabric of the story.
Characters Who are Believed In, Are Believable
It’s our job as writers to manage the emotions of the story so that we give audiences something to respond to. If you hold that you are the one “making up” what your characters’ story is, what they do, how they react, who they are, who they used to be, what they say, and ultimately, what they feel, you are missing the real blessing of being a writer (not to mention, working way too hard). You are coercing a story into being. Coercion, even subtly done, leaves a mark of fabrication.
You are also denying yourself the opportunity to let your characters change you. (You aren’t still thinking that your character’s the only one being changed in the story arc, are you?) If you’re making your characters up, you’re keeping them at arm’s length. That’s not where they need to be. Characters need more freedom and respect than that. They need to be able to get into your heart with a realness that isn’t burdened with the constant denial of being “made-up.”
Characters who have your full trust and faith do extraordinary things. Characters who are believed in, are believable. If you suspend your disbelief and let them exist, you’ll see that they guide and direct the story, they respond emotionally and authentically, they decide what they are going to do, when and how. They say what they want to say, far better than you can say it. And they know who they are.
This lends itself to stories that are authentic, that flow, that ring true to the human spirit.
Isn’t that what we want? It’s what we are called to deliver. Emotionally-authentic stories that audiences respond to. Characters so vivid that actors and audiences feel them as breathing, living beings and remember them for years to come.
If you give your characters the sovereignty they need, they’ll give you the story you need.
Move from Controlling to Trusting Characters
If you move from controlling characters to trusting characters, you change the dynamics of how you receive and interpret stories. It becomes less about you, less about writing and more about listening and relating. You move into collaboration with characters. And that’s where you want to be. That’s where the gold is. That’s where your story takes on “a life of its own” because it has a life of its own. You become a witness, a listener, a counselor and therapist. You champion them, you don’t let them take the easy way out, you keep pressing them for more. (And trust me, they’ll push you, too.) You spend a lot of time letting them express themselves, letting them breathe through the hard stuff, letting them take breaks when it cuts too deep, and you listen, listen, listen. (Yes, I know, you’ve heard me say it before. You’ll hear me say it again. It’s the most important skill a writer can have.)
What all of this is doing is allowing you to receive the story. Not create it. Not make it up. Receive it.
It’s fully formed, out there. Your characters know it, though they may not reveal it right off the bat (that’s what the real work of revision is – digging deeper). You receive the story. And because you’ve received a more powerful, authentic story in the first place, you have the emotions you need to guide the story to its most powerful expression.
Manage Emotions on the Page
Managing those emotions on the page comes down to managing which scenes to use in the story. Which dialogue. It’s as much about what not to include as it is about what must be on the page. It’s a judgement call. One you need to seek guidance on from the characters. You have to trust what you know is the heart and soul of the story. Emotion comes from what one longs to express, but doesn’t. It’s not about animating character’s expressions, but knowing what’s in their heart and what they aren’t allowing themselves to reveal. That’s what you put down.
Emotion runs the risk of being too tampered with during revision. Again, you have to know going in what is sacred and untouchable to the core of your story. There are scenes that if changed will change the entire story. It’s like surgery. You cut out the heart, brain, lungs or liver and your patient may be “cured,” but it will also be dead. If you’re collaborating with your characters, they’ll tell you what’s sacred. They’ll work with you to come up with the best way to get the point across. They’ll keep it authentic because they’ll be authentic and you’ll be trusting them for what the story needs.
Manage Emotions in Your Heart
There are tons of books on how to get emotions across to audiences. None of them will help as much as listening to your characters. Let them reveal their story to you first before it ever gets on the page. Which leads me back to Sue’s story of feeling as if she’d fallen in love with a character. We get close to characters. We spend a lot of time with them. We care about them. They trust us with their vulnerabilities. They can have a powerful affect on our emotions. Relationships with them are no less real than any other. They’re simply governed by different laws of dynamics, different realms, different purposes, limitations. Managing those relationships is like any other in our lives.
What can be harder to manage is how character’s emotions affect us. It’s not easy to be a witness to trauma, pain, suffering, heartache. It’s not easy to walk through tough scenes with characters over and over. It’s not easy to know that you’re pushing a character for more than they may be ready to face. That you’re asking them to trust you with their emotional and physical safety. Don’t get me wrong. The stories we write should touch us. They should be hard to get through emotionally. But we serve no one if we fail to take care of ourselves.
Remember What’s Yours and What Isn’t
The lines get blurred. Story. Character. Your life. Loved ones. Past. Present. What hurts. Who hurts. We live in the Seen and Unseen worlds. We feel the emotions of both. We need to remember to differentiate emotions that belong to us from those that don’t. We are not our characters. Our characters are not us. Their pain is theirs. Ours is ours. Empathy is not becoming the vessel of another’s pain. It is honoring their pain while holding them to the truth of their power in Source. We need to let our characters and their stories touch us deeply, but we also need to be touched just as deeply by our own lives in all their beauty, grace and potential.
Ultimately, emotion on the page and screen comes down to letting Story be what is it: a way to engage with what’s in our own hearts.
A reminder that we are, like characters, Spirit.