Letters from your Characters

This post originally appeared in a slightly different form on my personal blog in October, 2010. I revisited it recently and decided to share it here.

Wouldn’t it be great if, when you went to your mailbox today, you found a letter inside from the main character of your work-in-progress, telling you just how she feels about the central conflict of your story? Or maybe she wrote a love letter to another one of your characters, and somehow it was misdirected to you? Imagine what a resource a letter like that would be…

When I do my outlining for a new WIP, I write up a lot of backstory. I also do character sketches, to help me form a clear idea of each of my characters—not just hair color, eye color, and favorite movie, but what they would do on a perfect spring day, where they would go on vacation if money were no object, even how they feel about money, in general. I try to think of the most revealing questions possible. These sketches help me with the essentials of my characters, but they only get me so far.

That’s why I’ve taken to writing first-person narratives – letters to me, if you will—in the voice of each character. These narratives generally address the main conflict faced by that character in the story, and how she or he feels about it. Does she believe that the problem is insurmountable? Does she still have hope? Who is she counting on most to help her? Who does she expect to cause her the most trouble?

I also write first-person narratives by all the individuals involved in romantic relationships in my story. For each one, I ask the character to tell me:

  1. What do you love most about this other person?
  2. What would you miss the most if he or she were taken away?
  3. When did you first feel an attraction and what triggered it?

And, well, I’m sure you can come up with a lot more questions along this line.

These letters are great tools to return to while drafting. They help me to maintain consistency within a character, but they also helped me see that, despite consistency, all well-rounded characters have internal conflicts they are dealing with. People are filled with contradictions. Your characters need to be, too, if they’re going to leap off the page as real people with real complexity.

When you ask your character to tell you how he feels about the central conflict, chances are his answer will be complicated. It won’t just be as simple as, “I hate my father and wish he were dead,” because where’s the true conflict in that? Nothing is ever that straightforward. If it were, in chapter one your character could pull out a shotgun and shoot his father and the story would be done. Instead, your character’s answer to how he feels about the central conflict will be layered, complex, and in some ways, contradictory.

For you, as the writer, the secret to your character’s arc lies hidden in these contradictions. Early in the story your character may respond most to the tug of one attitude toward the central conflict. But as the story moves along, he may feel the influence of another attitude toward that conflict, and he will begin to change. By the time he’s completed his character arc, he may find himself in a place of compromise between these two contradictory attitudes.

Do you think this method might work for you? Do you have any of your own unique methods of learning about your characters? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

4 Responses to Letters from your Characters

  1. jeffo Oct 24 2014 at 7:20 am #

    I don’t write letters or do character sheets or interviews or Facebook pages or anything like that. I do overwrite, however, and sometimes I know as I’m working on something that it will never make it into the finished product, but it is a way of learning about the character.

    • Julie
      Julie Oct 24 2014 at 8:22 am #

      Hi Jeff! I totally get where you’re coming from. I think we all have our ways of digging up the truth about our characters, and writing an extraneous scene (or two or three…) is certainly one way. If character sheets and the like aren’t for you, then you find what works, right? It sounds like your method is working for you! Thanks for commenting.

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