A few weeks ago, I gave a friend a ride home from our writers’ group. Three of us had met and shared our writing and talked about experiences and processes, joys and challenges. One of the challenges we talked about was how it was difficult sometimes to just sit down and write, to move forward with our stores. On the drive, my friend asked why I thought it was difficult for me, why I sometimes resisted writing. My answer was vague, something that pretty much amounted to, “I’m not sure.”
I think about that conversation now and realize my response was right. After working on my second novel for more than a year, I’m not sure I know my characters well enough. And if I don’t know my characters well enough, how can I write their story? But then, if I don’t write the story, if I don’t put them in situations and let them talk and react, how can I get to know my characters better? I can’t.
I have read many books and articles and have been to workshops about character development, about writing descriptions of characters, putting them in hypothetical situations, about filling out questionnaires, even exploring their zodiac signs. I don’t think any of these approaches or exercises are without merit; they could provide valuable insights for sure. But for me, besides having characters in my head, I need to see them in the story I am writing. I need to see them in situations that come up in this particular story. Their story.
While I am writing, though, I need to be very careful that their words and actions are true in the situations that unfold. I need to be very careful that I don’t have them react the way I think they should, the way I or someone I know would, but I have to let them say and do what they will. Such a fine line between being the author of a story and letting the characters be in charge, but so it goes.
I recently finished reading Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. I love that book. I love the power and honesty of the stories and the richness of every one of the characters. I heard Elizabeth Strout tell Oprah recently that her character, Olive, came to her “fully formed.” Fully formed. My immediate thought was how fortunate Elizabeth Strout was. For me, it is a much slower process, but a deliberate one, and I realize I am just as fortunate as Elizabeth Strout. It is more gradual, like a picture slowly developing, but eventually, when I persist, my characters become fully formed for me as well.
So, being unsure is not such a terrible thing, unless I let it stop me from showing up to write. Instead, I can use it to move forward, to give my characters a complex world to live in, trusting them to engage with their world and each other and reveal themselves more and more, just as they trust me to get it right.