Tag Archive for character development

Try Q&A to Dissolve Writer’s Block

“You don’t get me.”photo

“What do you mean?”

“You think you know everything I’m going to say before I say it. You don’t ask; you don’t listen. It’s getting old. I’m done with this.”

Sounds like a couple arguing. It’s not. Rather, it’s me doing what I do when I get what some call writer’s block. I’m skeptical about the term because I grew up in newsrooms where writer’s block wasn’t permitted.

“Writer’s block?” some editor would yell. “We work for a daily newspaper. Cut the crap and get me that story by four.”

Writing fiction is different. When an author tries to force or rush the relationship with his characters, they become predictable, or worse, stop talking altogether. The first time I felt this happen, it stopped me cold. What’s worse than predictable fiction?

I pushed back, thought about it, and decided to try a solution from my reporting days. I put the story aside and drew up half a dozen questions for my rebellious character. Then I sat us down and conducted an interview. The most challenging part was relinquishing authorial control and “answering” in the character’s voice.

In my novel Bootlicker, for instance, Ike Washington is on the verge of becoming South Carolina’s first black congressman since the Civil War. He has the looks, the pull and the votes. But he has risen to power on the coattails of a racist U.S. senator, and that knowledge haunts him. Voters weighing their choices in 1992 smile to his face and call him bootlicker behind his back.

During the writing process, Ike didn’t always like the way things were going. He and I broke away from the narrative several times for some intense back and forth.

I’d say: Senator McCauley coerced you in the beginning, but it didn’t take long before you went along willingly. You liked becoming Big Ike.

And he’d fire back: Easy to say from where you sit. I was a scared kid at the start. I didn’t know how to say no to the most important white man in town.

It’s an interesting drill, and I left my desk more than once feeling a little dazed. Allowing the characters to speak up led to a few plot twists I hadn’t expected, plus dialogue that felt more real than when I was unilaterally calling the shots.

My talks with Ike also led to a series of short, stand-alone chapters where Ike’s nightmares bring him face to face with a man McCauley and the Klan lynched decades earlier. Ike stumbled on the crime scene and has always felt guilty that he didn’t prevent the murder, or reveal the truth afterwards. I would not have had these scenes had I not asked Ike about his dreams.

There’s a joke that goes something like, “The answer to writer’s block is simple. Lower your standards.”

Before taking that easy out, try doing a few interviews. It worked for me.

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Free Webinar: Take 2 on the Secrets Your Characters are Hiding

Your characters have secrets to tell

Your characters have secrets to tell …

Please join me Thursday at 7:30 p.m. for the repeat of a free webinar on how to discover the secrets your characters are hiding. Click here to sign up and participate in an interesting and practical session with actionable tips you’ll be able to put to immediate use. What will we cover? Novelists know that our characters begin much like the little wooden boy began. They sit one-dimensional, quiet and unmoving unless – or until – we pull the strings. Only then do they start to move, talk, lie and grow big noses. But a funny thing happens the deeper you get into your story. Call it growth. As your characters develop and mature, they come alive. Your work at the keyboard is like the blue dust that turned the wooden boy into Pinocchio. Once this transformation takes place, your characters become more like sentient beings, full of the same needs and emotions that drive the rest of us.

Those of you with children will recognize this as a significant moment – the day when the kids begin expressing their own point of view, and when your words are no longer accepted as gospel simply because you are the parent. Yes, you can subdue or quiet your characters in a way that will not work with your children, but that is the wrong strategy, in my view. For if you look at the writing of a novel as a journey through uncharted territory – and with you as the leader – your characters, if you let them, if you talk to them, ask questions and listen to what they have to say … will steer you to fascinating and secret places that do not exist on any map. And that is where your stories will take off.

I hope you’ll sign up and join me this Thursday.

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