Pop quiz: Where do your characters go when they aren’t in the scene you’re writing? Are they pacing in the greenroom? Maybe chowing down at the snack table, catching a quick nap, or binge watching old episodes of Murder She Wrote on Netflix while waiting for their next cue. Or – and this is the most likely – have you inadvertently pressed the pause button, and sent them into stasis? As in, out of sight, out of mind.
After all you have so much on your mind – you’re focused first and foremost on the scene you’re writing. In fact, you may be so focused on what your protagonist is doing, that even the secondary characters right there on the page have blurred a bit. They’re no longer specific people, but representatives of a general category: mom, dad, BFF, sibling, co-worker. Uh oh.
A gifted writer I work with had that habit. Whenever her protagonist, Tess, appeared in a scene with her parents, Tess remained vivid and driven, but her parents turned bland and generic. When asked what was going on, the writer said, “Well, that’s how most parents I know act during a family dinner – so it’s totally believable.” But it wasn’t believable at all, because it wasn’t what Tess’s parents would have done; in fact, it wasn’t what anyone who had a specific past would have done — and sheesh, we all have a specific past, every last one of us. Ditto each and every character we create.
So in order to figure what actually would have happened at that family dinner, the writer had to plumb Tess’s parents’ story-specific pasts in order to unearth what, exactly, they would have done, and far more importantly, why they might have done it. This didn’t simply apply to that one scene in question, but to everything they did throughout the novel. Which, in turn, changed a bit of what Tess herself did, because now the writer had a much better handle on the situation Tess was dealing with, who she was, and how she saw the world.
The work the writer did to give her characters well-developed, story-specific agendas was invaluable, because now she had reliable, sturdy guidelines, enabling her to both create and track the arc of all their storylines – scene by scene — throughout the novel.
Which brings us right back to the question we started with: Where do these well-developed, story-specific characters go, and how do they keep themselves busy, when they’re not in the current scene?
The answer is amazingly simple: [Read more…]