Listen and Learn from Your Characters

Ezra drops in on Ike at unexpected moments

We writers like to play director, or perhaps a higher deity, moving our characters about, feeding them lines, determining import and outcome before any action even occurs.

This one kisses that one. That one turns out to be married. This one didn’t know and drives his car off a bridge.

But how often do we stop to ask our characters what they think?

Give this a try. Wherever you are in your story, stop cold. Dream up a handful of questions for each main character. Actually type out the questions.

Then pretend you’re sitting with each character, one by one, and ask your questions.

Try to answer in their voices. Not how you think they would answer, but how they would answer. I used this technique when I wrote Bootlicker, which launches Sept. 1.

It’s 1959; we’re in rural South Carolina. Poor, black teenager Ike Washington stumbles on a Klan lynching led by a white judge. Caught, he must choose: join the dead man or begin hustling black support the ambitious judge needs to advance.

In trade, Ike “earns” a life of comfort and power. By 1992, he is poised to become the first black S.C. congressman since the Civil War. But Ike is haunted by his path to power, and wakes at night to find the dead man, Ezra James, beside his bed.

I had a chat with Ezra that went like this:

SP – What happened in the woods that day?

Ezra – Things were different in ’59 down South. Black folks were starting to vote. Made whites nervous. Klan decided to make an example.

SP – Were you involved in registering voters?

Ezra – No, sir. I told them they had the wrong man. I worked at Old Man McCauley’s drugstore. I minded my business, kept that store spotless.

SP – And?

Ezra – They didn’t care. More I talked ’bout being innocent, more they beat me. I tried to stay sitting up but my arms were tied. Then we all heard a noise off in the trees.

SP – A noise?

Ezra – Two kids looking for a place to drink their beer. One of ’em ran off right away. The other froze. That was Ike. Ike Washington. He and the Judge locked eyes.

SP – The Judge?

Ezra – Judge Lander McCauley, son of Old Man McCauley, my boss at the drugstore. The men asked the Judge what to do ’bout Ike. He said let him go, we’ll get him later.

SP – And then they turned back to you.

Ezra – I know you been looking at the scars ’round my neck.

SP – I’m sorry.

Ezra – No ’pologies needed. They went back and grabbed Ike that night, brought him over to the Judge’s house. They said he could join up with them or join up with me.

SP – Meaning he would have been …

Ezra – … Hung. Lynched.

SP – What work did they want him to do?

Ezra – Bein’ a judge wasn’t enough. McCauley wanted more. To get it, he needed black votes. Ike’s job was to get black votes.

SP – But he was a kid.

Ezra – They taught him.

SP – And he went along.

Ezra – It didn’t take much convincing.

SP – Forgive me, but you were gone by this point. How do you know …

Ezra – … Maybe being gone don’t mean what you think. Maybe that’s how you and I can be having this little talk right now.

SP – Ok, well, how did you feel about Ike going to work for McCauley?

Ezra – How’d you like it? Truth gets buried with me and no one’s any wiser. That Ike, he’s smart, catches on fast. Next thing you know the Judge becomes the Congressman. Ike’s on his way, too. Fancy clothes, ’spensive doctors. Today, everyone knows Big Ike. Everyone wants his ear.

SP – Including you?

Ezra – Oh, we have our visits. I drop by late at night. I don’t need no appointment.

SP – You haunt him?

Ezra – Your word.

SP – What’s yours?

Ezra- We visit.

SP – What do you talk about?

Ezra – That’s private.

SP – Do you blame Ike for what happened?

Ezra – He didn’t do nothing to stop it. You bet I blame him.

SP – Should he have told the truth later instead of going with McCauley?

Ezra – He shoulda’ thought about it more than he did.

SP – So now Ike is running to become the Congressman. He would be the first black congressman in South Carolina since the Civil War.

Ezra – What’s the question?

SP – Do you want him to win?

Ezra – I don’t care nothing about if he’s the Congressman.

SP – Ezra, can you ever forgive Ike?

Ezra – No offense, you’re asking the wrong question.

SP – Then what’s the right question?

Ezra –Look at the man. Can’t sleep. Finger always twitchin’ for no reason. Soon he’ll be heading back to that forest, a long rope in his fist. The right question is: Can Ike ever forgive Ike?

Do you speak to your characters? How have they surprised you? 

2 Comments so far »

  1. Martha Orlando said,

    Wrote on August 11, 2012 @ 11:07 pm

    Wow! This method of questioning the character and allowing him to respond as he would, not as you would, is such a revelation. I was spellbound by the dialogue and so intrigued by this idea. As I continue the sequel to my novel, I will certainly employ this technique.
    Thanks for sharing this most interesting read!


    Steve Piacente Reply:

    Thanks for dropping by and for your kind words, Martha … all it takes is a willingness to let your characters take center stage for a few minutes. And btw, I’ve got everything about Bootlicker wrapped up in a nice package here if you’d like to learn a little more:


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