Every fiction writer I’ve spoken to on the topic, and most celebrity writers whose interviews I’ve read, speak of their characters as real people. I feel the same way about mine, and like many writers I have made the mistake of trying to force my characters’ personalities into print.
Regardless of how richly we can create a setting and sense of place, regardless of how profound our prose may be, our truly authentic, very alive characters cannot become real for an audience unless they are allowed to speak for themselves. What makes them real?
They have likes and dislikes, they have great loves and fundamental beliefs; they feel anger, disappointment and fear, they possess specific preferences, develop distinct motivations, and sometimes, they work contrary to all those emotions, personal preferences, and deepest fundamental beliefs for specific reasons. How do you know this? Because they told you. Now, you must do the retelling.
Consider the background of both your protagonist and antagonist. Write a scene where both of them show up and have to talk to each other, whether they want to or not. In this scene, find a way to insert a bit of motivation into the dialogue so we have sympathy for both characters.
If you have trouble getting started with this, close your eyes and visualize your characters—forget body language and background. Don’t set up the scene, listen to the conversation. Who begins? What is his/her tone? Is every word clipped, or breathless and rushed? What words do they use to convey their emotions, or intention, in that particular moment?
If setting up the encounter is absolutely necessary, do so with only the briefest of paragraphs. For the express purpose of this first exercise, keep your word count at 500 words or less. If a reader asks for more information, expound upon the scene with a maximum 200 words of more dialogue.
Set the Mood
Now we can interject scenery for the sake of enhancing the mood of a particular scene:
Place two characters in a setting that will enhance the story’s mood. A dark, creepy alley in a horror story, a bright island beach in a romance, or you might want to reverse these for something different—a dark alley in a romance or an island beach in a horror story. Write a scene of dialogue focusing on the mood/emotion you want to convey in the overall story.
Again, let your characters do the telling. Step back, visualize, and listen. In what ways does their conversation define and color the boundaries of the scene? What emotions or decisions do the surroundings influence? Make the scene come alive in 500 words or less.
When you’ve finished your work and are ready for us to read, just paste a link to it in comments below. Questions are welcome.