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.
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.
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/