Dig Beneath Your Character’s Surface
When I was a Strategic Account Manager, I worked with my customers to make sure we gave them the products and services that would help them.
Instead of asking them what they wanted, I’d ask them questions about what they were trying to achieve. When I was stuck on one of my stories last week, it hit me that I could use this same method to add depth to my stories.
When I’m not sure where a character is going, or why a story feels bland, I keep asking why and what. Why would she do that? Why wouldn’t he do something else? What is the character’s end goal? What do I want the story to say?
Here’s a “before” example of my opening paragraphs from one of the short stories I’m writing:
Distracted by the latest rejection email, Jennifer was running late for the writer’s group meeting. Hands on her office chair’s armrests, she was about to stand when a new email popped in. The subject line stopped her mid lift: Song I Wrote for You.
Jennifer ignored the thought of Evelyn, the self-appointed writer’s group leader, chastising her for arriving late, and lowered herself to the chair, trying to comprehend what she’s reading. Did someone write a song for me? Who would write me a song?
I felt like it was descriptive, but it felt bland, and surface-y.
When I wrote these sentences, I didn’t have any role for Evelyn in mind. I was simply thinking that Jennifer (MC) would need a consequence to balance so she could feel the weight of reading this email knowing it would make her late for the writer’s group.
A few days later, I started asking ‘why’ and ‘what’. Other than the email subject line, why would Jennifer do something that would make her late for her writer’s group? What was the dynamic between Jennifer and Evelyn? I dug deeper and kept asking questions.
Here’s the new opening paragraphs for that story. I don’t know if this will be the final version, but I feel it tells a better story and gives more depth to Jennifer.
Closing the email, Jennifer’s eyes watered and her throat tightened. Lifting her arm to wipe the tears, she noticed the time on her iWatch. Terrific, now I have to fix my face, and I’m probably going to be late. Who was I fooling? Maybe all of this was just a colossal waste of time.
She had finally gotten up the courage to share part of her short story at last week’s Eastham Writer’s Group (EWG), and was shocked by the feedback from someone she had hoped would become a mentor. Tensing with each hurtful blow – One dimensional characters. Stilted dialogue. Boring plot line. – Jennifer had absorbed them, no outward sign of the bruises they were leaving on her heart. I know Evelyn treats everyone this way, but I can’t help taking it so personally.
Evelyn, oblivious to the pain she was causing, got on with the meeting, “Ok, whose work are we critiquing next?”
And now this rejection email from The Short Story Revue comes in just before today’s meeting. Well Evelyn will be happy to know she’s right!
A quick glance at the clock reminds her she needs to leave ASAP. “Shit! Now I’m really going to be late!” Hands on her office chair’s armrests, the subject line of a new email stopped her mid lift: Song I Wrote for You.
Jennifer ignored the thought of Evelyn chastising her for arriving late, and lowered herself to the chair, trying to comprehend what she’s reading. Did someone write a song for me? Who would write me a song?
Now I know more about Jennifer, and understand why she reacts to the things that were happening to her, I can write a more interesting story. Getting the rejection email right before seeing someone who had also given negative feedback had left Jennifer feeling her most vulnerable, and wounded.
Any other time, she may have ignored an email from a stranger, but I’ve set up an emotional and psychological reason for her to do the irrational.
As I’ve started doing this more deliberately, I’m seeing that the first round of questions isn’t always the end game for my characters or the story, but another reason for what they’re doing.
Once I get a feel for what my characters are trying to accomplish, it’s much easier for me to write.
What method do you use to add depth to your characters and stories?