Characters Are Key
Whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, characters are the drivers of a good narrative and great writers build them with care. Even if the characters are real people.
If that italicized bit made you raise your eyebrow, I understand why. But it’s true. From the Child-is-Mother-to-the-Woman Department, I present what my daughter, who works in documentary film, explained to me: there’s art and a dizzying number of decisions involved in telling a true story well. Including who the characters are and how you portray them.
Even if you’re doing content writing for an organization (been there, done that, got the insulated coffee mug), that entity is a character — it’s another kind of true story (hopefully, even if it’s often a bit of a stretch). You’ve seen the job ads. They’re all looking for storytellers now (finally!).
Usually characters are human, but the Academy seemed enthralled with a certain octopus recently, didn’t they? And there’s no question, a place can be a character too — hello Sex and the City, (notably not named Sex In The City), nice to meet you In The Heights (I’m no bandwagon fan, my impossibly hip mother got tickets for me and my family to this stunner even before it got to Broadway in 2008 because she’s just that cool). If you’re finding this cloyingly contemporary, fair enough, how about Wuthering Heights then?
Fact or fiction, once you identify your characters, how do you shape them? This is something that has kept me up at night and when I have insomnia, I often find myself repeating pop song lyrics — it quiets my rambling mind. Thanks (sorta) to Bob Seger and Silver Bullet Band and their 1980 hit, Against the Wind, I have often gotten stuck on the line “what to leave in, what to leave out.” At three in the morning.
Yes, I know that song tells quite a developed story and of all the lines that encapsulate it, this isn’t one of them. But something about the“deadlines and commitments” lead in probably spurred the voices in my admittedly overwrought head. Now, when I think about developing character, that’s the approach I take — what to leave in, what to leave out.
It’s a two-step process.
Step 1: Make Lists and Answer Central Questions
Find a way to catalog a barrel full of details about your character, human or otherwise. Everything from phrases, clothing, record collections, prized possessions, habits and affinities.
You can use the Proustian Questionaire if that works for you. I used to love to watch James Lipton ask those questions of famous people on Inside the Actors’ Studio in his deep baritone. (If you want to see a young Matt Damon answer the questions, you really should click that link. I get nothing out of it. Just making you smile is enough for me). I always imagined that the actors studied up in advance, because their answers were just a little too sculpted and if anyone can make you believe a line just popped out when it was really memorized, it should be them. Nonetheless, it’s a great exercise because it forces vivid specifics.
If you prefer something less formal, here’s a list I worked up for some clients years ago that still does the job (obviously this gets adjusted for a non-human character or someone from a different era or unique background):
- What is your character’s name? Does the character have a nickname? If so, how did she get it?
- What is your character’s hair color and texture and style? Eye color?How does she dress?
- What words or phrases does your character use over and over?
- What kind of distinguishing facial features does your character have?
- Does your character have a birthmark? Where is it? What about scars? How did she get them?
- Who are your character’s friends and family? Who does she surround herself with? Who are the people your character is closest to? Who does she wish she were closest to?
- Where was your character born? Where has she lived since then? Where does she call home?
- What is her biggest fear? Who has she told this to? Who would she never tell this to? Why?
- Does she have a secret?
- What makes your character laugh out loud?
- When has your character been in love? Had a broken heart?
- What is in your character’s refrigerator? On her bedroom floor? On her nightstand? In her garbage can?
- When your character thinks of her childhood kitchen, what smell does she associate with it? Why is that smell so resonant for her?
- Your character is doing intense spring cleaning. What is easy for her to throw out? What is difficult for her to part with? Why?
- What is one strong memory that has stuck with your character from childhood? Why is it so powerful and lasting?
These questions are meant to get to those vivid specifics and invent the right sequences of words to make that character unique and recognizable to your reader. A friend of mine who is an editor at a major publisher told me that she reads dialogue and asks herself if she’d know who said it without being told. That’s her sign that the characters are driving the narrative instead of being pushed around by the plot.
Put the time in with your language choices. I recommend spending 5–10 minutes answering each question. I realize that means it could take up to three hours per major character. That’s why you get paid the big bucks!
Step 2: What to Leave In, What to Leave Out
Now, back to Bob Seger. You did the work. You even know some of the backstory if you gave the questions enough time. So, how do you decide what you use or highlight and what just looms in your imagination (where it will still help you think about what this character would do or how she would feel in a given situation)? That’s where your narrative purpose comes in. For example, if you’re working on a memoir about how you became a feminist and that’s the slice of your life that you’re focused on, it may not make sense to spend too much time on the fact that you’re a partial vegan (it’s so hard to give up eggs). But maybe your travails in law school have their place. Like that time RBG came to speak….
Rebecca Bloom is a writer, editor and writing coach, volunteer patient advocate for women and former attorney. She has worked with businesses and nonprofits large and small, strategizing content and tone and creating multi-channel messaging for diverse stakeholders. Rebecca has devised and led memoirs classes and workshops, helping writers get their stories told. She has also coached writers and speakers in other genres including historical fiction, pilots, screenplays, pitches, business communications, Ted Talks and more.