FOLLOWING CHARACTERS

Characters drive stories, not the reverse.

While apparently random and unexpected things occur in stories, most ‘inciting incidents’ (the event that gets the story moving) are not unique: the arrival of an unpopular relative, a tidal wave or a bag of money have all been done before.

It’s how characters respond to these events that makes a story original.

Selecting an appropriate response to a situation is best done from ‘inside’ the character. Being ‘outside’ a character means making value judgements about their behaviour by comparing it to what you might do in the same situation.

Being ‘inside’ is to stand in their skin, think as they might think. Inhabiting a character imparts a more fluid sense of their possible responses to a given situation.

It’s not hard to come up with action that is quirky or surprising, but that action is more likely to be true to character if you’re inhabiting them, rather than imposing action from outside.

After all, your characters stem from you and are a part of you. They each reflect some aspect of your personality and your experience of the world.

Even an evil character should carry within them some quality you personally identify with. This is not to say that everything in your stories should be cut and pasted from your life. Writing is, after all, an act of the imagination. But you should always understand their point of view.

Your life can furnish you with inspiration, but rarely can it furnish a complete story. For example, you might devise a character based upon a school bully from your youth. You vividly recall his negative traits (e.g. cunning and physical strength), but to write that character convincingly requires the addition of a sympathetic quality that allows you to inhabit the character (e.g. he’s lonely).

Now you are ‘inside’ your created bully and better able to judge what he’ll do in your imagined scenario. Who knows? The story may require that he turns out to be a good person who’s merely misunderstood.

Stubbornly adhering to your understanding of real-life characters and past events inhibits your imagination. If that’s your aim, make a documentary.

Once you’ve built a character, confront them with a challenge or place them in jeopardy. How they react will set your story apart from any other.

If a bag of money arrives on their doorstep, a swindler’s response might be different to a detective’s; but your swindler and your detective may surprise you again.

When you know your characters well, they take on a life of their own and lead you through your imaginary world.

For more: The Cheeky Monkey – Writing Narrative Comedy [Currency Press]