For some of us, writing is a breeze. Our plots practically create themselves, and our characters come to us with clear motivations all on their own. Then after that, the story flows effortlessly onto the page. Frankly, I’m not in that category of writers, and I think it’s safe to say that most of us aren’t. Writing is a hobby, a job, or a passion for each of us, and at some point it’s going to be a struggle.
There are so many ways to get stuck while writing. What can you do if it happens to you? It can be so hard to push through these points, when our ideas stagnate and we can start to feel a loss of our original infatuation with the project. Too often we try to solve our story problems by staring them in the face, hoping if we push against the wall long enough it will eventually turn into a door. But sometimes, it’s better to try a more roundabout approach, looking for solutions in places that aren’t so direct. One of the places we can find those solutions is in our characters. The stronger our characters are, the more they can help us get unstuck in our writing and move forward.
It might not make sense at first to think that having stronger characters can mend a myriad of issues, but let’s look into it a bit: If your character is too flat, they won’t do much for your story, and they might end up being the reason you get stuck a lot of the time. On the other hand, the more you learn and know about your character, they can push many parts of the story forward and give you a solid plot, as well as illuminate information you may not have known you were missing, like setting details or realistic interactions.
So, now that we’re thinking about how knowing our characters better can improve even things that don’t seem to have anything to do with them, how can we get to know them well enough for them to help us out? You can always start by taking personality tests for them on Facebook, but those will only get you so far. You have to dig deeper!
As writers, our characters are an integral part of us, and the more realistic we can make them in our heads, the more realistic we can make them on the page. If your character becomes so real you can talk to them and have them answer back, you’re on the right track. If you don’t feel like you want your characters to be real enough to talk to, then you’re missing out on a lot of substance that can make your story shine. You don’t have to be best friends with the people in your head, but it’s good to learn how to open yourself up to communication with them when the need arises. Try this exercise and see if it works for you.
Start by picking one of your characters. Think about what they can tell you, what they might be able to help you understand, and perhaps even some things they may or may not know anything about. Come up with a few questions for them that you would like them to answer for you, as though you’re going to conduct an interview. And now? Talk with them! It might feel awkward at first, and that’s okay! It’ll take practice! But don’t discuss any in-depth topics with them until you get past that uncomfortable stage. For some ideas of how to start, you can ask them how their day is going, and even why they feel that way about it (you never know where important details will come from). Ask them about their interests and hobbies, even if you think you already know the answer. Speak to them as though they’re someone you’ve just met.
Once you’re out of the awkward stage, you can go deeper. Ask them anything you like! Try to identify some of the things that your are having trouble with in your story. For example:
Do you have well-developed characters, but no exciting plot to put them in? Ask them about what drives them! What would make them angry, or sad, or happy enough to change their everyday life? What do they care most about? What quirks about them can you play with and turn into plot points? How can their personality play off those of the other people in the story? Any of these answers might lead you to the plot you’ve been searching for!
Is your setting too vague? Creating a world bible on your own can be invaluable, but your characters can help here too. Ask about their surroundings, about their favorite and least favorite places to go where they live. Ask about what the locals wear, what they eat, and what makes them unique. Not only can you get a lot of information here to add to what you may already know, but you can see it through the perspective of a person, rather than through the textbook-like words of a world bible. These kinds of questions can help you better convey the setting to your audience, or it can simply be used to clarify things for you that won’t end up in the story, but are still just as important for you to know.
Stuck wondering how your character might respond in a situation? Come up with multiple reactions and ask your character which they feel would fit them best.
Don’t have any problems at all? Talk to your characters anyway! Ask them what they think of their story. They might point out a few details you missed.
But what if my character isn’t responding to my questions? You might not have convinced them to talk to you yet, but keep trying to coax them out. One thing you can try is coming up with your own responses, but intentionally make them the wrong ones. Messing things up on purpose might get them to speak up just to correct you.
This is just the beginning! There are so many things your character can solve for you, and the better you get to know them, the better they can help you. Keep your connection with them strong and, as you write, they will come to be your guides through your story.
We're all writers, we're all moms, writing our way through the "brambles" of life and our stories.