A couple of years ago I was working on a novel and having the hardest time with the main character. I felt him so strongly, but he wouldn’t talk to me. I could see him clear as day. I knew what kind of music he loved, the exact shade of his green eyes, the way he obsessively rolled his socks. But all I had were those types of details, the ones that could be gleaned through pure observation. He wouldn’t voluntarily share anything else with me—not his past, not his current motivations, and sure as hell not his plans for the future.
Some writers call it a burst of inspiration. Some writers call it “being in the zone.” It’s that magical shift that happens when your characters start speaking and acting with their own free will. That point of no return when they run off on their own wild ride and you really have no choice but to follow along.
You think you know your main character so well. You know where she came from, where he went to school, the name of her chosen dagger, and why he never goes to bed before three in the morning. But if you think you know everything there is to know about your character, think again. To write really juicy, complex characters you’ve got to get in there and peel back their masks.
Do you really know what motivates your characters? I mean beyond trying to solve the mystery of the plot you’ve woven around them, or being reunited with the person you’ve torn from them in the interest of suspense. What is the constant energetic force in your character’s life that drives him or her to do the things they do?
How does a great writer get inside a character’s head? What’s the secret to peeling back the layers to reveal the emotionally textured motive beneath?
I recently struggled with this while reading a long, epic poem by Goethe. There were so many characters, and each character had so much going on, that it was hard for me to keep track of all of them. It was even more difficult to see the bigger picture of how they all fit together.