This is an article on writing originally published in the June/July 2004 issue of WCDR Wordweaver.
Knowing your characters is, at times, the hardest part of writing fiction. You can leave them in limbo for days on end as you agonize over their next moves. If they’re not willing to open up to you, you’re stuck.
But as their creator, you should be omnipotent. It’s your right to intrude on their privacy and find out what’s under the surface. There’s no better way to do this than to take possession of their minds and write their personal diary entries!
One day I was faced with a character I loved, but could find no means to carry him forward into my story. Struggling with his motivations, I couldn’t imagine what he’d do next. It was obvious that I didn’t really know who he was. That’s when I had an idea. Why don’t I just step inside his head and find out? He could tell me where he wanted to go.
You might think this sounds crazy. But one of my personal theories about writers is that we’re all just a few drops short of a river to begin with (i.e., we’re right-brained geniuses who are able to see the world around us as a constantly shifting wonderland filled with endless fictional possibilities).
Maybe this diary entry concept is a writing tool you already employ. But if not, I have a feeling you might be thinking, ‘Hmmm, sounds like a good idea’, especially those of you who have a minor character haunting your backstage, waiting to be thrust into the limelight of your story.
Diaries don’t form who we are, but they’re definitely a living record of that forming. You can’t read a person’s diary without knowing them a whole lot better afterwards. I’ve been keeping separate diary notebooks for years, exploring my characters in ways I never before could.
I simply write a character’s name and a date at the top of the page, throw myself into that character’s headspace and begin writing the entry.
I find that the date I choose is always helpful in this character study. If I choose a date years prior to my story, I can learn things about my character that have helped to form the way he reacts to certain situations.
For instance, if I explore a childhood entry I might find him writing about a traumatic experience and I suddenly understand why he is timid and skittish. Or I may choose a date a week prior to my story and discover why my character is in her present mood. If she writes about losing her job, her true love and her house all in one day, I’m going to understand why, on page two of my story, it makes perfect sense that she’s on the subway with unkempt hair, waving a loaded .45.
You can also write an entry that takes place two months after your story ends. Think of the possibilities this opens up! You might learn how to end your story by knowing what your character is going through in the future.
You’re the creator. This makes you the god of the quirky little worlds you create. When writing your story, don’t feel the need to trap yourself within its timelines. You have the right to move freely through time – something your characters can’t always do themselves.
Sure, you’ll feel like you’re being intrusive, like you’re somehow invading a sacred place. You might even sense people breathing over your shoulder as you write. But don’t worry. You’ll learn that your characters enjoy writing in their diaries. It gives them the opportunity to stretch their limbs and tell you a little about themselves; maybe they’ll even feel more real and validated.
The entries you create will definitely have an impact on your stories, even if what you write never finds its way into your narrative. Consider these entries as getting-to-know-you sessions. Never actually using the material does not make this a futile exercise.
On the contrary, you may find yourself on the fast track with loads of new material to work with. These people will have lives leading up to and away from your stories. You will have to write faster just to keep up with them! Now, where was I?
Oh yeah, ‘Dear Diary…‘