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.
If this is what we all want from our characters, then why does it seem like it’s so hard to get there?
But the secret to brilliant characterization is to know that—in the early stages—your characters could care less about what your reader thinks.
Your characters have shown up in your head because of their own personal agenda. They would be offended if they knew you assumed their reason for existence was to please your reader.
Now, I’m not suggesting you never rein your characters into a workable story that other people might want to read. But I am advising that you save this reining in for the editing stages of the work. When you’re in the very first stages (i.e., writing the very first sloppy draft) your characters sure as hell don’t want to be told what to do.
If you ignore the wants and needs of your characters and try to tell them what to do anyway, they will more than likely blow you off and disappear, or become uncooperative and refuse to move from Point A to Point B without you dragging them.
This stubbornness on the part of your characters will show up as writer’s block, plot action that feels forced and contrived, and dialogue that stays flat on the page.
Think of your characters as somewhat shy, extremely willful children who are about five years old. They’re smarter than you think they are and they know when you’re up to something and trying to lead them in a certain direction. And while you might have plans for your kid to be a champion soccer player, they might actually hate soccer and prefer to join the circus instead.
If your character wants to run off and join the circus and you try to stop them because it’s not in your outline, you didn’t expect them to take this course, or you’re just plain scared of deviating from your preconceived idea of what your story should look like, then your characters will swiftly punish you for it. Just like a rebellious kid would.
The real secret to drawing rich and complex characters is that you have to train yourself to listen. You have to become very, very good at staying open to what your characters want, rather than what you want. You have to let them have their freedom and independence. You have to trust them to make choices for themselves.
Not all of these choices will make sense to you. Some of them will make you cringe. And some will make you lay awake at night worrying about the outcome of your story. What have I done? You’ll ask yourself. How can my character possibly be making the right decision? And then, the most dangerous thought of all: Readers are going to hate them.
Readers may very well hate them. Just like with real people in the real world, that’s a chance every character worth reading about has to take. And you have to let them take it. Because that’s the chance every writer worth their salt knows is part of the craft.
Let your characters be themselves and follow the path they truly want to follow. Your job as a writer is not to force them into anything. Your only duty is to follow them around like a walking video camera and record what you see.
After all, writers are not gods. We’re only scribes.
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