‘Hearing’ your characters

Thoughts on taking characters from two to three-dimensions.

In my recent Create a Compelling Protagonist course, the question arose on our online forum: How to 'hear' our characters? How to take them from the theoretical realm of us imagining them to the kind of creative reality writers need to have whereby the characters come to life?

Here is my response:

This is a critical aspect of the craft, not just hearing, but seeing and feeling the characters. And it all starts with this premise: They exist. In that rather magical fashion we, as writers, experience, they live in and outside of our imagination.

So we invert the old saying. Instead 'seeing is believing, we need to embrace this:

Believing is seeing.

Moreover I like to think that characters WANT us to tell their story. They are our ALLIES. Besides who knows the story better than THEY do. It's THEIR story! They are ones LIVING it.

Now how to get them talking, seeing them in action, tapping into who they are, their feelings, memories, passions, interests, beliefs, behaviors, defense mechanisms, coping skills…

Two general ways. First, indirect methods such as biographies, questionnaires (3rd person, i.e., What is her name… what type of job does she have…) That's important for us, often early on, in reflecting about our characters, a bit more outside the story universe.

Then we can go inside the story universe and engage the characters directly. Take that questionnaire approach and make it into an interview. My favorite: You are a psychiatrist, they are your client / patient. Or you work somewhere and they are applying for a job. Engaging the character directly like that where you ask a bunch of questions can bear a lot of fruit.

You can go even deeper with what I call 'character sit-downs'. Go to a quiet room. Close the door. Turn off your phone. Get comfortable. Much like meditation, take deep breaths, relax, clear your head. Try to get a mental image of a character. The goal is to get into their head space.

Put fingers on keyboard. Or pen to paper. Then for 15–20 minutes, just type/write. Let the words flow. Yes, your mind will go, "I need to shop for groceries" and "What's the score of that game I'm following". Again, like meditation, just let those thoughts drift away and keep coming back to your character. Do not restrict your typing/writing. The idea is to try to get beyond your rationality and logic, and see what emerges from your 'communing' with the character in question.

You may try a sit-down as an open-ended line of communication, whatever the character is feeling, their thoughts, experiences, memories. Or you can try it as a monologue where they are voicing whatever it is they want/need to say.

In any event, once you are done you have a bunch of things on the page. Let's say 75% of it is gibberish. If 25% of it ranges from solid insights to pure gold. Now you have that level of connection and contact with that character. You can take that 'stuff' back to your biography, develop that further. Maybe do another sit-down later.

You do this type of thing, following your creative instincts, for each character. This is all part of the brainstorming process I have writers go through early on in the prep-writing process.

As a means of shifting the process from (broadly speaking) right brain to left brain, there's a next step: write scenes. Construct scenarios involving one or more of your characters and simply go with your instincts as you write some scenes. They may or may not end up in your story. But you will gain insight into your characters that way and start to move yourself toward page-writing.

I've laid this out in a sequential manner, going from the most indirect to most direct forms of engagement. While that can be a helpful way to go, digging deeper and getting more intimate in the process, don't feel like this is the way to do character development. Follow your gut. If you're stuck with a character, perhaps you jump straight into sit-downs. Maybe you try writing scenes first.

The thing is characters are organic, they live and breathe in their story universe. They have free will, souls, needs, wants, and all the rest, so character development is not a paint-by-numbers process.

That said, there are times when we need to step outside the story universe and assess what we've learned. This is where I find it extremely helpful to use the primary character archetypes: Protagonist, Nemesis, Attractor, Mentor, Trickster. Once you get to know the characters through indirect and direct engagement exercises, you can begin to see their respective narrative functions, which in effect determines their archetype. At that point, you can use their archetype as a lens to further clarify and focus your understanding of the character.

This is the basic approach I've developed for my Prep: From Concept to Outline workshop which I've run dozens of times with great success. I also use this basic process in my own writing. The whole point is to ground everything in character development and use that as the means by which the plot emerges.

Moreover through all this work, you should start to 'hear' your characters, indeed, even go inside their minds and life-experience so you become intimate with who they are, drawing upon that intimacy to fuel your writing of each and every scene in which they participate as well as their overall physical and psychological journeys in your story.

If you are interested in learning more about this type of character development process, I will be leading my only two online Prep workshops for in 2017 in June and July. You not only learn how to use this set of tools, you also get my feedback each step of the way — from concept to outline. For more information, go here.


'Hearing' your characters was originally published in Go Into The Story on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Go Into The Story – Medium

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