Letting Characters Write Their Own Story
by Heather Smith
When I first started out writing I thought it was all about the plot. I treated fiction like I treated research papers. Outline what you were going to write about, do the research, and then write. What I came out with were interesting stories, but lifeless characters. Frustrated, I went the other direction. I decided that I didn’t need a plot. I just needed to know my characters. So I wrote down some characters. What they were like, what jobs they had, what their hair color was, etc. But when I got to writing, all I had was a bunch of people standing around in a big, white room talking over each other. No interaction, no relationships, no point.
Now, tearing my hair out, I gave serious thought to giving up on being a creative writer. Maybe I’d just stick with research papers and technical things. There was a long dry spell and then it suddenly hit me: the urge to write.
I sat down and decided to try a middle ground. I’d have a general idea of who my characters were and where I wanted them to go. I set the story in my home town, so that it was easy to describe, and thought of a simple popcorn-romance plot. And then I just started writing. I figured that it was a lot easier to edit things out than add things in later, so I wrote with abandon.
I described the scenery, the setting, the time and temperature. My character appeared in a bank. I intended the story to be a sort of simple boy meets girl, but somehow she ended up a bank teller. That was fine, though I was confused on how that came about. But I figured, well, a bank teller meets a lot of people, so it will work.
Then she looked around. What do I mean by that? I mean that the character took over. She did! Instead of imposing my will on her, I let her look around and tell me what she saw. Like a real person, she saw many things at once: the color of the flowers outside the bank, her co-workers, the wheezing of the air conditioner, and the rattle of the coins. And then she saw ski masks, and I realized that she was smack dab in the middle of a bank robbery.
Well, this story just got a lot more interesting! But where was the love interest? There were all these guys running around in ski masks: the guard, the minions, and the guy in charge. Which one was the right guy for her? Or was it a police man that would save the day? Some SWAT guy, all armor and strength? I honestly had no more idea then my character did. By the way, she didn’t have a name yet. I just named her Name, to hold the place. After all, I had to know more about her before I arbitrarily stuck her with a moniker. A name gives you a sense of who the character is right off the bat, and I didn’t want to screw it up.
Anyway, she and I were mightily surprised when she was taken hostage and dragged away by the bad guys. It wasn’t until her guard gave her a second look as they left the bank that I realized he would be the love interest. What the heck? He was interested in her? When did that happen? I didn’t plan for any of this! The characters were writing their own story now, and I was just along for the ride.
From then on, I let it happen. I let the characters show me, like real people, their wants and desires. Their fears. They interacted, and it was awkward and confusing, and oh so real. I learned more about her from her attitude towards him, more about him from his reaction to her. Even the simple things, like where she put her shoes or how she held her body showed her character. She evolved from a vague idea into a full-fledged person of her own, completely organically. He, too, evolved from a faceless, nameless bad guy into a misunderstood darkly heroic figure trying to run from his family and his past.
The moral is this- to have a general idea of who and what you want to write about and then write. Don’t worry if your characters are not fully formed in your head. Like friends, they will change and grow as you get to know them. No one can be fully known by anyone else; we are always surprising each other. So let your characters surprise you. Let them out of the box and see where they go. Your stories will be deeper, richer, and much more real.
Heather Smith is an ex-nanny. Passionate about thought leadership and writing, Heather regularly contributes to various career, social media, public relations, branding, and parenting blogs/websites. She also provides value to nanny service by giving advice on site design as well as the features and functionality to provide more and more value to nannies and families across the U.S. and Canada. She can be available at H.smith7295 [at] gmail.com.