Know your fictional characters before you start your novel, and you’ll have a much easier time figuring out your plot. That’s because plot (which is action) arises from character, and not the other way around.
If you can get your characters to share their hopes, dreams, fears, and secrets, you’ll know which obstacles to place in their paths.
The writing that springs from these exercises may never fit into your novel. In the early stages of writing a novel, you don’t need to concern yourself with point-of-view.
Simply invite your characters to open their hearts and speak one soul to another. When they do, you’ll feel a click inside, and know you’re on the right path. If Dickens had asked Fagin how far he would go to stay in control of his army of child beggars, who knows what the scoundrel might have answered? Maybe he would have lied.
Don’t worry if your characters are liars. If they lie, so be it. See what spills spontaneously from their lips.
#1. Fictional Characters In A Confined Space
Imagine your characters in a confined space with a person she or he wants to avoid. This could be an elevator or a taxi, a men’s room, privy, carriage or laundromat. Your character feels physically trapped.
The person your character loathes wants something from them. Maybe it’s money or a favor or forgiveness or information. Will your fictional characters give said person what they want, or will they use delaying tactics? Will they try to physically escape, or suffer in silence? How will they they feel afterwards?
Develop a scene with action and dialogue.
#2. The Interruptor
Imagine this scenario.
Two characters have had a serious argument. One wants to talk things out. The other is determined not to. Let them talk for a while, with dialogue running down the page. Do not go inside their heads. Capture the sense of one character aggressively trying to get the other to “open up.” (If you’ve ever been married, you should recognize the power of someone who stonewalls.)
While these two are in the middle of the argument, have a third character come in. What does this third person need or want? What’s the third person’s agenda? Does the “interruptor” pick up vibes about the argument, or just gloss over it? When that person leaves, do the first two finish the argument or agree to table the issue?
This is also a great exercise to do if you’re in a writing group. Write out each character’s secret agenda on a notecard, and have the actors step into their roles. What you discover might be more valuable than a critique. Knowing your character’s “fight technique” (even if it’s hiding under the bed) can be useful when you’re writing scenes.
#3. Interview Your Fictional Characters
Get your fictional characters talking by asking questions. Here are some that have worked for me.
- What do you want that you’re not getting?
- Do you have any regrets?
- What bores you?
- Is it important to make your life count?
- What or who inspires you?
- Do you have physical or spiritual needs that aren’t being met?
- Whom do you love, and whom do you hate?
- What fills you with passion?
- How’s your sex life?
- What makes you laugh?
- Do you need more money, and why?
- What bad habits do you wish you could give up?
- For whom would you lay down your life?
- What part of your body would you never let anyone see?
- Have you thought about how you’d like to be remembered when you’re dead?
- How often do you think about your mother, father, or grandparents?
- Did anyone ever abandon you?
The moments when you capture the voices of fictional characters can help you discover the characters’ underlying motivations. The “plot” is all about frustrating your characters’ desires. Those desires often spring from the love/security they didn’t get in the past.
#4. Standing At A Crossroads
Imagine your character at a crossroads between the past and the future. Let a secondary character arrive with life-altering news. Maybe someone has died. Perhaps the National Guard wants him to reenlist. Or, possibly, the pregnancy test showed a positive.
Your fictional character has a choice about whether to take a risk or to keep plodding down the same old path.
There’s just one problem–the person who has brought the news keeps offering suggestions.
Watch the ping-pong ball of conversation as your main character tries to clear some mental space to absorb the news and make a decision what to do about it. You’re allowed to go inside one person’s character’s head, but not both.
#5. The Casual Stranger
Perhaps women do this more than men, but my sons tell me that within fifteen minutes of meeting a stranger, I can learn that person’s life story.
Imagine your character on a bench or standing at a guardrail above a flowing river. Stand next to your character. Be aware of their body-warmth and the way they shift their feet. Be aware of their eyes and whether they’re looking off in the distance or looking down.
The silence between you is an empty vessel. One of you will pour your heart out. Be patient. Sit quietly with that silence and listen for your character to speak.
Alternately, begin with this prompt. “How is it you happen to be standing/sitting here right now?”
Why This Works
When you’re doing the above exercises, you’re operating in the discovery phase. Getting to know your characters is what prewriting–and even the first draft–is all about. Now, get writing, and have fun letting your characters surprise you.
Marylee MacDonald is the author of MONTPELIER TOMORROW, a novel, BONDS OF LOVE & BLOOD, a short story collection, and THE RUG BAZAAR, a chapbook. Her books and stories have won the Barry Hannah Prize, the Jeanne M. Leiby Memorial Chapbook Award, a Readers’ Favorites Gold Medal for Drama, the American Literary Review Fiction Prize, and many others. She holds an M.A. in Creative Writing from San Francisco State, and when not reading or writing books, she loves to walk on the beach and explore National Parks.