- Writer Unboxed - https://writerunboxed.com -

Walking a Mile In Their Shoes: Understanding Difficult Characters

14985425760_82721207e3_z [1]
photo by Flickr’s JP

The situation was serious. Her husband lay upstairs, losing ground to the disease destined to kill him. In a nearby town, a search had begun for a local youth trapped in a collapsed mine. And through it all, her own son, spared death in the Great War, grew ever distant, unable to shake his ghosts from the front. Whatever could be done to break the impasse?

There was only one solution. Rising from my desk, I grabbed my keys and headed toward the door, pausing briefly to fish my iPod from the entry table.

An hour later I found the answer. Hiking in Rock Creek Park, a forested reprieve from the bustle of DC, I stumbled upon William Coulter’s “Rain into Snow” and placed it on repeat. As strands of plaintive guitar filled the time and space between us, my character began to speak. Elisabeth shared her life, and lamented the toll extracted from years of bending to the will of family members she loved dearly yet at times resented. More shocks were coming, things I knew which she didn’t, things that would hurt. But I at least had an idea of where to start. In a seemingly premonitory moment, she would choose to wait for them, perched on the porch as a winter storm descended upon her mountain home. With the image secured, and a fresh understanding of my character, the scene came quickly. By nightfall I had my first draft.

Jewels from the Music Box

Like many writers I know, some of my characters arrive fully formed, revealing themselves with little prompting. It had been like that with my first protagonist, with whom I shared commonalities. I too had once been a closeted young man in the military so I could understand his reticence, the constant tussle in his mind. That link kept me tethered as I probed his deeper fears and desires. It had been different with his mother Elisabeth, who had remained an enigma, at least until I discovered her music, our music, which finally bridged the gap between us.

Hardcover Cover Graphic MEDIUM 3650 by 2400 [2]I’ve been thinking of Elisabeth lately as I struggle on a manuscript filled with characters foreign to my own experience. For a few, music has helped. A playlist of techno-chill tunes, some racy, has helped me find rhythm with one, an aspiring starlet who jettisons her intellect in hopes of landing the big break lying always just outside her grasp.

In Search of New Techniques

Yet other characters have kept their distance. And that’s a problem, for I embrace Ernest Hemingway’s premise that “a writer should create living people; people not characters.” But how does one make the leap, transforming caricatures into fully realized beings, particularly when characters diverge greatly from one’s own background, motivations, and beliefs?

That dilemma has prompted me to reshuffle my bag of tools and to search for new ones. Here are my experiences with a few.

Meditation. Author Alice Walker believes characters emerge from a creative silence. “If you’re silent for a long time, people just arrive in your mind,” she promises. I appreciate the sentiment. When I am in a good vein, open to the universe, ideas often emerge, divulging crisp and revealing character details. Long hikes can help me get there, as do country drives, gardening, even housecleaning (which my partner appreciates). But I don’t always operate in a state of nirvana…correction, I rarely do. And for that reason I require prompts, little nudges along the way.

Deep Character Questions/Backstory. Google “discovering your characters” and you’ll find a vast array of questions designed to tease out anything from character eye and hair color to earliest memories and greatest fears. But for complex characters—and they should all be complex—what works best for me are more probing inquiries. The lack of a clear physical description doesn’t prevent me from moving into a story. What can trip me up are unresolved queries such as “What is the one thing my protagonist truly wants?” or “What single incident turned his or her world upside down?” Lisa Cron provides fruitful insights into these questions and the essential need to mine your character backstories in her book Wired for Story, which I highly recommend.

Role Models/Proxies. In his memoir On Writing, Stephen King recounts the experience of writing Carrie, his breakthrough debut. I was struck by King’s vivid memories of two classmates who helped unlock the tormented existence of his protagonist; his encounter with the mother of one provided everything he needed to flesh out Carrie’s deeply disturbed mother. In addition to these role models, King gained an unexpected proxy when his wife offered to provide insight into the culture of adolescent women, a crucial element of the story he found both bewildering and unnerving.

Seeking role models and character proxies is a new idea for me. While I have long recognized that people in my life help refine my characters, my new manuscript is the first for which I have actively reached out to others. I’m pleased to report the experience has been positive, with friends readily opening up their lives and providing frank observations on the professional and social circles in which they move. I hasten to advise against incorporating actual real persons into your fictional world. But as a means to understand characters distant from yourself, an appropriate role model or proxy may be just the boost needed to awaken your own creative juices.

Barreling Ahead. While I teasingly call this the “fake it until you make it” method, it is a model pantsers have long embraced. Essentially the idea is to force pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, even when uncertain where that will take you. Because themes will appear. Some will stick and perhaps, unexpectedly, a previously murky character will emerge.

Take this contemporary example. Readers of Gone Girl will surely recognize the “cool girl” speech, protagonist Amy Dunne’s shredding of the destructive lengths women often go to fit illusions created by men. That fiery tirade, which went viral with the novel’s success, began as an exercise author Gillian Flynn penned during a period of writer’s block, in which she placed herself in the shoes of her sociopathic, yet insightful, character. Often the results of such free-form exercises never end up in a final draft; Flynn herself resisted the idea. Yet even if she hadn’t included the now famous “cool girl” speech, the raw bitterness of that confessional would still have infused the character, breathing life into each scene.

Though I’ve only recently embraced this approach, I will say this. My characters are moving about now, allowing glimpses behind their masks, which brings me to a final lesson from King’s memoir. Turns out he never warmed to his first protagonist, finding Carrie “thick and passive.” He compared poking about her world to “wearing a rubber wet-suit I couldn’t pull off.” Yet King soldiered on, and pulled it off: a bone-chilling debut to one of the most successful writing careers of our time.

So who knows? Perhaps our most challenging characters are the ones who push us creatively as well, surprising us and awakening otherwise untapped potential.

How do you forge connections with characters vastly different from yourself? Are there techniques you employ for particularly thorny characters? Do you find it important to establish those bonds from the start? Or do you trust character secrets to flow naturally from the process?

About John J Kelley [3]

John J Kelley [4] crafts tales of individuals at a crossroads, exploring themes of growth, reconciliation and community. His debut novel, The Fallen Snow [5], about a young soldier’s homecoming at the close of WWI, received a Publishers Weekly starred review and earned an Honorable Mention nod at the 2012 Foreword Reviews Book-of-the-Year Awards. Born and raised in the Florida panhandle, John graduated from Virginia Tech and for a time served as a military officer. Today he lives with his partner in Washington, DC.