Dear writers and storytellers,
Here, as promised, is the fifth of five excerpts from my popular book Write Characters Your Readers Won’t Forget. I am offering one excerpt free each day this week on my blog. Each includes practical tips and exercises for digging more deeply into the inner lives of your characters — helping you to make your characters and their stories unforgettable. I offer the fifth of the five excerpts below.
And now, on to your free tip for the day:
DISCOVER YOUR CHARACTER’S FAMILY
by Stant Litore
Who is your character’s family? How do they look at their parents? What do they think of the ways they are like (or unlike) their parents? The nature of your character’s relationship (or lack thereof) with his or her parents can be a driving force in your character’s life.
So can the absence of parents.
Example: Dinosaur Cowgirl
In Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series, the Chicago wizard Harry Dresden is an orphan, and his yearning for a family drives a lot of his choices. For example, in the novel Ghost Story, Harry runs some big risks—almost to the point of losing sight of his mission—in order to help a young gang member who is an orphan. Harry can see that the youth is a “good kid” in a bad place, and because of his own history as an orphan, he can’t simply walk away.
In Skin Game, there is a touching scene where Harry watches the Carpenter children rampage playfully through his best friend’s house. An older child carries a younger child on his shoulders while holding his hands up against his chest like tiny arms and making growly T-Rex noises; another child flees while the girl being carried yells gleefully, “No one can escape dinosaur cowgirl!” Watching their antics, Harry gets almost tearful. These children have security and affection that he never had.
What lies simmering in the heart of your character, when they think about their family? Were they an only child? Were they an older, younger, middle child? Where are their siblings now? All of these questions can yield vital clues to who your character is and the choices your character might make in the story.
It’s time to interview your character about the things we’ve discussed in this chapter. For this exercise, write down a list of questions – e.g., What were your character’s parents like? What is her scariest childhood memory? What is one time she was really furious with her best friend? If she could have one thing more than anything else in all the world, what would that be? What does she do before going to bed each night?
Give the list to a friend and invite them to add questions of their own. (That part is important.) Then roleplay your character and have your friend conduct the interview, asking questions of your character. Try to get as “in character” as possible. If you can, dress up as your character (even if it seems silly to do so). At the least, step out of the room as you, take a few deep breaths, and step back into the room as your character, before beginning the interview. If you are nervous about the exercise, just remember that you are a writer. Playing pretend is what you do. Getting inside a character’s head is what you do.
Record the interview, and play it back afterward. Maybe discuss it with your friend. Perhaps try doing this with two or three friends at different times. The key is to be surprised by new questions and to see how your character responds.
If you have a friend who is an actor, a theater major, or similar, have your friend read a scene and then ask your friend to roleplay your character. This time, you ask the questions.
Always take time to reflect after an interview. What questions surprised you, and what answers? Are there new opportunities and ideas for exploring who your character is, and how they interact with others?
Read more in Write Characters Your Readers Won’t Forget!