Has the following ever happened to you? You’re outlining your next masterpiece, the script/book that will take the country by storm and cement your legacy as one of the finest writers of all time. You know how the plot will unfold and fit together, and how it will end in a way that will leave your readers and viewers in awe at your command of the written word.
Then you start to work on your characters, and realize that you have no idea who these people are.
Desperate, you try a few exercises: you write out incredibly detailed backstories that detail your character’s childhoods, their outlook on life, and their favorite flavor of chicken nuggets. When that fails, you try writing out an interview with your characters to know them better. You imagine that they’re a minute away from being eaten by a giant lobster, and find what it is they regret the most from their lives, and what they’re the most proud of.
Yet, nothing works. Your characters remain elusive; they’re shadowy forms within the ether of your imagination, blobs that are just out of sight. What do you do?
How about talking to them in the middle of the forest?
Lately, I watched an episode of Jim Henson’s ‘The Storyteller,’ where a princess’ brothers are turned into ravens by a wicked witch, and the only thing that can change them back is if she doesn’t speak a word for three years, three months, three weeks, and three days. While living in the woods, she eventually meets a handsome prince traveling through, who spends some time talking with her and introducing himself. In a little under thirty seconds, we learn that he’s a prince, and that despite only knowing her for a few minutes, he’s madly in love (are we sure this isn’t a Disney story?), and that their love is true.
There’s more to the story, like how the princess keeps popping out babies despite having them get swiped away within a day, how she’s almost burned as a witch herself, and how one of her brothers becomes a half-raven, half-human mutant, but I was ruminating about how the prince had introduced himself. Not because it was a beautifully written scene or featured lovely acting, but because it was an interesting idea for writing:
If you want to figure out what the core of a character is, pretend that you only just met them besides a forest path while they’re on a journey. Have lunch with them, during which time they introduce themselves to you, explain who they are, and where they’re going before they resume their quest.
Think about this: If you’re having lunch with a stranger, the two of you likely aren’t going to stay together for long before going your separate ways. No matter how riveting you find each other, you’re not going to spend your brief time together giving each other your life’s story, your dreams, or how many Pokemon you’ve caught in the forest while playing Pokemon Go. You’re going to stick with the big stuff: your names, your professions, where you’re going, and what you hope to accomplish. Let’s try a few examples:
“I’m Roger, junior deputy from the nearby town of Windy Willow. A prisoner escaped on my watch and ran through here recently; since this is my first assignment, I need to catch him before he escapes into the wilds, because if he gets away I’ll be fired and have no way to feed my family.”
“My name is Ser Galbadon, royal knight of his Majesty King Arthur. A fearsome dragon has taken up residence in a nearby mountain; as his Majesty’s most experienced knight, I am on my way to slay the foul beast, even though I’m old and not as strong as I once was. Still, I shall see my task through to the end; would you care to join me? Our country and our king needs you!”
“Look, I’m Sarah and I’m in sort of a rush; a meteor is racing towards Earth and I have to get my family into my underground bunker. Problem is, they’re fifty miles away, and I only have a day to get to them! No, I can’t help you capture Pikachu! I’m sorry you and your folks are going to die, but there’s nothing I can do to help you. Now, I have to go! Good day!”
In less than a paragraph, we learn what each character wants, the obstacles in their way, and what will happen if they fail, far more useful information than what their childhood was like, their hobbies, and the like. Those are extras, bonuses that can revealed during the story; what you have here is the core of them, the thing that drives them, and that can be invaluable when it comes to learning who your characters are.
The next time you’re stuck trying to figure out who your characters are, try chatting with them during a break in their journey; you never know what new things you might learn about them!