September 15th, 2014

An Old Soul’s Guide to Uncovering Your Characters’ Deepest Secrets

Natalia Sylvester

Natalia SylvesterYou know how some authors will tell you that their characters just speak to them, taking on a life of their own?

I cringe when I hear this. I twitch a little. I kinda, sorta want to call B.S. (but that’s probably because I’m jealous).

I have a hard time believing characters speak to writers because it’s an experience so far removed from my own. When I’m developing my characters, they start out as a mystery. They lock up when they sense me poking at them. They may as well stick their tongue out and tell me to mind my own business. Yes, they’ve got plenty of secrets…but they’re not telling.

Which makes sense, if you think about it. If we only try to discover our characters through the writing of the actual story, if we only allow ourselves to observe them in scene, then we’re putting them on the spot and only seeing one side of them—one person, in one specific time and place in their life.

Developing characters as the story unfolds often backfires because this only allows them to exist on the page. It only allows them to communicate to us through the keyboard.

So…Step Away from the Story

Ok, not the story story. But the draft. The Word doc or Scribner doc or whatever form your book exists in. Set it aside for a bit.

photo credit: aye_shamus via photopin cc

photo credit: aye_shamus via photopin cc

Grab a pen and paper. (An unlined journal is my preference.) Write this by hand. Doing so will give you the freedom to know that none of what you’re about to write has to be perfect, or will even end up on the final page. For now, this is something private, just between you and your characters.

Write a letter from your protagonist to another important character. Write the kind of letter that changes the recipient’s life in one very specific way. It may be a huge way, or a small way, but it should be specific.

(Note: Focus on the external change. An emotional change, while important, isn’t enough. An external change in a character’s life will, by its very nature, trigger an emotional change. But an emotional change by itself doesn’t always have external repercussions…and we need those to create plot.)

Now, write the letter that your protagonist writes to that other character, but never sends. What is she dying to tell this person, but ultimately can’t find the courage to? What would she write if she knew no one would ever read it? What unspoken truth is eating away at her? What secret scares her?

Explore the in-between: You now have two versions of a story, two versions of your protagonist’s big secret. What happens when you and your protagonist know more than another character? And what do these secrets—the keeping and perhaps eventually revealing of them—set into motion? Life and relationships are essentially infinite versions of a truth contained inside each one of us. Some we want to tell, others we hope to hide. What we usually have in front of us is a grey area, a half-truth. It’s a place ripe with stories.

Why letters? It’s not that I’m nostalgic or old-fashioned (maybe it is, a little). But letters have a permanence that in-person interactions, emails, phone calls, and text messages don’t. By sending one, the sender has to let go of it. What they write is never theirs again. And the recipient can either carry it with them always or discard it without a thought. In many ways letters mirror the dynamics of relationships: we give of ourselves without ever knowing what, or if, we’ll receive. Without ever knowing if we’ll make an impact.

Rinse, repeat: Try this not just with your major characters, but your secondary characters, too. Play with time; date the letters not just during the period in which your novel takes place, but in their past and future. And while you’re at it, why not try a letter from a very minor character? You might find they’ll surprise you.

ChasingTheSunLima-e1403897593544About Natalia

Born in Lima, Peru, Natalia Sylvester came to the U.S. at age four and grew up in South Florida, where she received a B.A. in creative writing from the University of Miami.

A former magazine editor, she now works as a freelance writer in Austin, Texas. Her articles have appeared in Latina Magazine, Writer’s Digest, The Writer, and NBCLatino.com. CHASING THE SUN, partially inspired by family events, is her first novel.

Find her online at http://www.nataliasylvester.com/

15 comments to An Old Soul’s Guide to Uncovering Your Characters’ Deepest Secrets

  • Natalia, The characters are the ONLY thing I know when I start a novel! I’m glad of the reminder that there’s one part of novel writing I don’t struggle with!

    Except men. I have a hard time writing them because I feel like I’m eavesdropping in their heads!

  • I’ve only had one or two characters in my current WIP that I’ve had trouble figuring out their real motives. I had to do an interview with one character in order to get the story straight with him. But this idea seems like an interesting one. I always find tips like this fun and interesting!

  • Suzanne Purvis

    I love this idea of writing letters. Sounds ingenious! I’m off to try it. Thanks

  • Orly Konig Lopez

    Great post, Natalia! I always love reading about how other writers get into their characters’ heads.

  • I’m a big fan of letters. They played a major role in my just published novel. So I like this idea of using letters to get into the heads and motivations of characters. What we choose to say or not say to someone speaks volumes. Thanks, Natalia.

  • Thank you all so much for welcoming me to the blog today, Orly! Laura, getting deep into the characters’ heads is definitely one of my struggles…would love to get your tips on how you do it! 😉 SB James, interviews are also a great idea, thanks! Carole & Suzanne, I hope you enjoy it! There’s something kinda romantic about writing letters, isn’t there?

  • Barb DeLong

    I’m a letter writer – I write my dear mother-in-law every month, very detailed, boring stuff, which she loves. Both characters in my current WIP have secrets. I’m going to have them write to each other. Hopefully not boring, but can’t wait to see what turns up! Great post. Thanks for this tip.

  • Natalia, I love the old tradition of letter writing, only with one person now, my sister-in-law who also loves the “feel” of a letter.

    What I do with my characters might give you a tickle. I talk to them. Or rather I talk in character, each of them becoming part of the conversation. When I hear what they say to each other, I get ideas on how to use that in my story. It’s a bit insane, but lots of fun. I also read the stories out loud at some point to hear that they are them and not just another me.

    Love this post and your letter writing idea. I hope it sparks some WITS readers to get into characters and their darker, more secret sides. Thanks 🙂

  • Oh thank goodness! I thought I was the only one whose characters refused to talk to them (and who was jealous of all those other writers with their functional character families). I often get my characters to write letters to each other. It helps me work out relationships, discover fears and interests and helps to clarify in my mind what my characters want and need. There’s nothing like a good letter. I wonder if there’s a way bring letter writing back. 😉

  • Maybe I’m a little different, I don’t know, but I tell my characters what they are going to do and why. Often I follow an apparent line of action and reason in developing what they are going to do. Then as the book blossoms, I add little pieces of story — past and present — they flesh it out. As to plot development, I’m a pantser so often events happen on the spur of the moment as I write because it is the unique progression of the story. Many things that happen I had no concept when I rolled out of bed that morning. I do admire those who have the patience to write letters to characters and development them this way. To use a cliche, Whatever floats your boat.

    Thank you for a very interesting perspective on the wonderful, mysterious art of writing.

  • What a fabulous exercise, Natalia. I continue to say you’re wise beyond your years! Thanks for the tip. Now we see how Maribella and Andres came to life for you!

  • […] can be found in blogs everywhere – and lots of them offer some great advice or practices. Natalia Sylvester offers one such activity for getting to know your character that also adds in key plot development. She suggests having your […]

  • Mel too. I’m definitely going to share this article with writing pals and try the technique. Especially since I write a series and THINK I know the characters. I bet there’s plenty to discover. Thank you for this.