Ask your character what she wants

If I find myself just writing scenes where characters talk because I like the sound of their voices or the way they are together, I know it’s time to step back for a minute, re-evaluate, and do an exercise to refresh my brain.

Image credit: my-favorite-coloring.net

Image credit: my-favorite-coloring.net

One thing I do is get the characters talking about something different and that will actually move the story forward is to ask each of them in the scene this question: What do you want in this situation and why?

Then I let them have at it. I write in first person monologue for as long as each one needs to talk. And I free write. I recommend setting a timer if you haven’t done free writing before or if you really, really believe you won’t be able to get very far.

Commit to at least 5 minutes of free-writing, which means once you start, you don’t stop. You keep the pen/pencil moving on the paper (yes, you have to do this by hand), even when the character is being obstinate and won’t say much. When this happens, just keep writing, even if it’s just I don’t know what to say, I don’t know what to say, I don’t know what to say. Eventually, he/she will say something new and different, and it will probably surprise you.

Try it. It works!

 

Start watching at 1:35…

 

Move your character

Creating characters readers will be invested in and resonate with is no easy task. We have to make them step up off the page so readers can take them in with all the senses, experience them as real people. Readers want to know what she looks like, smells like, sounds like, feels like, and in some cases, even what she tastes like. Take her from flat to living and breathing by spending enough time with her. Treat her like someone you care about because before you’re finished with her, you will care about her. Very much.JohnL'HeureuxQuote

To get started, keep a character journal. Devote a page or more to each character.

  • Create a name, gender, and age.
  • Describe what she looks like. Give her a hair color, a body shape. Dress her.
  • Fill her apartment, bedroom, and car with things. But do this selectively. What she wears and what she owns tells us who she is.
  • Make her talk. Is her voice high or deep? Loud or soft? The way she speaks tells us how much power she thinks she has in the world.
  • What does her apartment smell like? Her car? What about her hair?
  • And if you kissed her? Her skin? Her mouth? What would you taste? (In a past post I wrote that we have to fall in love with our characters. Sometimes we also have to make love to them.)
  • Move her. Show us how she walks. Laughs. Picks up a wine glass or a cigarette. How she handles a pencil.

After you have her physicality clear in your mind (and this may come in pieces), get to know her and understand what motivates her to want the things she wants and to make the choices she makes.

  • Why does she go to the same coffee shop every day?
  • What does she do while she’s there and why?
  • What does she want, more than anything and why?
  • What, or who, might interfere with her getting her desire?
  • What’s at stake if she doesn’t get what she wants? How will this affect her life, and what new decision will she make when met with an obstacle?

As writers, to tell our characters’ stories, we have to become one with them. We have to let them under our skin as much as we have to climb under theirs. The more time we spend on knowing them from the inside out, the more we can understand what moves them.

And the more we move our characters, the more we move your readers.

Who’s your favorite character?

Find your tool fetish

While non-writers may look sideways at the fetishizing of writing utensils, a writer understands that what looks to be a mere object to others, is an important aspect of our creativity, an extension of us. Our pens, pencils, notebooks, and yellow legal pads are conduits between our muse, ourselves, and our stories. Talismans, even.

For instance, I’ve written in the past about how I use the keyboard for certain stages of writing (mind dumping big thoughts and writing the story) and write by hand for other stages (initial random snippets and editing drafts).

When I’m not at the keyboard, my writing tool of choice: a mechanical pencil.

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I’m not picky about brand or color or even design (although it does need to fit in my hand comfortably – if I’m noticing that I’m holding a pencil, it isn’t right – and I have to admit, I’ve become partial to those with a rubber grip at the base). It has to have a good eraser, too. But mostly, it’s the lead for me that’s the deal breaker.

This is it: .5 / #2

When I write with a .5 #2 mechanical pencil lead, it’s like silk on silk. The feel of the soft graphite sliding across paper is so sensually satisfying it allows me to – maybe even helps me – focus in on the flow of the story, and in the editing process (which is when I use the mechanical pencil), I’m able to see the excess and the holes in what I’ve written, and I just get immersed. It’s trance-like. A surrender, of sorts.

I can edit with a pen, but it isn’t the same. Using a pen keeps me in my brain too much. But with a mechanical pencil, I engage with the words and the paper in a whole different way. The pen gouges. The pencil caresses. It allows the flow from my psyche to go straight down my arm, into the pencil and on to the page without conscious thought. It’s magic.

While I haven’t pondered, to any great length, why writers have these seemingly quirky requirements for their writing materials, I can’t help but think it has something to do with the fact that writing is not just a mental act, but a physical one. Each writer’s special need when it comes to tools must have something to do with the that writer’s physical make-up and response to tactile sensations.

Whatever the reasons for these special requirements, our fascination with knowing the writing quirks of famous writers is clear. In Alison Nastasi’s article on the subject, we learn about the writing fetishes of twenty famous authors, and while most of us wouldn’t dream of using a fountain pen to write a novel these days (unless you’re Neil Gaiman), thanks to technology, we have even more tools are at our disposal. For instance, Sara Juckes describes, other tools at our disposal to enhance our writing lives: things like CTRL-Z, Sticky Notes, and Pinterest, among others.

Some of us would benefit from other, newer tools that aren’t directly attached to the writing process, but that allow us to get the work done, such as Cold Turkey, a program that locks you out of the internet if your willpower is low, as suggested by Robbie Blair in his article that details “9 Modern Tools Every Writer Should Use.”

Discovering our old-school writing tool fetishes, as well as adapting to and utilizing new-school technological inventions that can make our jobs easier, is just one more facet of defining and honoring ourselves as writers.

In addition to my old-school .5 #2 mechanical pencil fetish, I’d say my current new-school fetish is toss up between GoogleDrive (love, love, LOVE that I can write on any device, anywhere, anytime, and not have to remember to email myself the last draft of a piece) and Notes (so handy when I have an idea and no paper, napkin, or envelope to write in the moment.

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What’s your writing tool fetish?