Why writers have to talk to their characters

Posted on January 5, 2018

(Honestly, this is not just a way to justify why I spend so much time talking to myself.)

It’s important that key characters in any story can throw the reader the occasional curve ball.

It’s vital is that you, the writer, were expecting that curve ball, and know what it’s leading to.

It sounds like it ought to be easy – you’re the writer, of course you know what’s coming next! – but it can be all too easy to write problem characters who are boringly predictable or annoyingly erratic.
The key is to realize that all your characters have three parts to their back stories: the parts their companions know about, the parts they don’t, and the parts that even the character has forgotten about or doesn’t understand.

As an amateur writer for 30 years, I had the time to flounder about to build full back stories for my problem characters, but if you want to write seriously, you must speed that process up.

One of the best ways is to have repeated imaginary conversations, either with your problem character, or with other characters that know them well. The three types of conversations are:

– Down the pub
– ‘I don’t know why I’m telling you/doing this…’
– Where did that come from?

Down the pub…
This is straightforward enough: it’s how the character talks to someone they’ve just met, don’t know well, or don’t trust. It’s about what they do and don’t choose to reveal. What do they want people to know about them? Why is that important? Are they being themselves or putting on a façade? How wary or open they are can tell you a lot about where they’ve come from, and how they are going to develop.

‘I don’t know why…’
This is where the curve balls emerge. The character may even surprise themselves by saying or doing something unexpected – but what, and to who, has to be relevant to the story.

At this point you, as a writer, have to check if, maybe, your words are just wrong for that character. If they are, save yourself a lot of grief and take them out now! Alternatively, if it’s plot critical, see if you can move them to another, more suitable character.

If it is something that everything hinges on later, and it HAS to be this character who says or does it, that’s when you have to spend more time working through it.

This approach also helps when you have the basic plot from start to finish, but aren’t sure how your characters get there.

Where did that come from?
Sometimes it’s worth letting the character become self-aware and work out why they did something unexpected, unreasonable or unwise. Sometimes you need to look for the answer from someone else in the story who knows the character well – perhaps someone from their past. Think, family, friends, enemies, teachers, students, colleagues. They may not even appear in the final story; that may not matter.

Noting down all these thoughts as extra words can seem a waste, but it rarely is. For a start, if you’re doing a series those notes can save you from plot slip-ups later, and get you back into the character quickly if you’ve been working on something else. Those notes may even go on to form an integral part of the story later (think J K Rowling and her brilliant plot device, the pensieve).

Meanwhile, I have to put these words into action this weekend, working on Book 4 of the Ilmaen Quartet, so I’ll leave it at that and wish you all happy writing.

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