Brainstorming a new story is always fun, especially when the characters jump off the page, shake my hand and introduce themselves, and then proceed to tell me their entire life history. After a couple of cups of coffee, I feel like I’ve known these people all my life. I know what makes them smile and what tears their heart in two, their favorite food, whether they are right or left-handed, the trick they played on their teacher in the third grade, and the secret they pray nobody knows. I know their innermost thoughts. When a new story idea takes wing and the characters invite me along for the ride, and they act like tour guides along the way–yes, that is a writer’s dream.
Then there are those “other” people.
I’m not talking about the minor characters or the wallpaper characters. No, I’m referring to a new story idea where the plot threads materialize, the circumstantial twists pull a wicked smile onto my face, but the main characters cloak themselves in mystery. It’s as if they are playing hide and seek, and they’re really good at it. How do I coax them out of hiding and get them to play nicely with me?
Brainstorming isn’t just for story ideas, because you can’t have a story if you don’t have characters to tell it. More often than not, the plot rolls out for me before the characters do, and I have to wait until they decide they want to become real people. Only then can I cajole them into sharing their goals and motivations, as well as their fears and those things for which they dare not hope.
So how does an author lure her characters out of hiding? I can only speak for myself, but I usually start by asking questions:
What is in this character’s past he/she hopes will never be made public?
Is there a family secret?
Does this character have an unfulfilled dream?
Are there ill feelings between this character and someone else?
What does this character want more than anything?
Are circumstances such that they might never see their desire materialize?
Who or what is preventing them from accomplishing their goal?
What is the biggest emotional struggle this character faces?
What is the hardest lesson this character has yet to learn?
If I tread in the wrong direction with my answers, my characters can’t resist jumping out of their hiding places and setting me straight. I remember having an argument one time with one of my characters who wanted to throw a plot twist into the story I had not planned, nor had I written it into the synopsis. After trying to reason with the guy (his name was Everett) he finally won out and I tweaked the story line to include “his idea.” I learned something from that argument–Always listen to my characters. They know their own story better than I do.
I’ve learned something else over the years. When my characters play hard to get, when they are shy about sharing who they are or anything about their past, it generally means I haven’t spent enough time trying to get to know them. One of the main things I keep in mind: I am not the one telling this story. It’s their story. Let them tell it.