If you’ve been writing for a while, you’ll be familiar with getting a manuscript polished and shiny, the plot honed, the arcs soaring, with your characters feeling more familiar than members of your own family. But here’s the cruel part: you have to move on and write a new story. You plummet from perfectly crafted sentences back into the muddy trenches of drafting. I felt this particularly keenly with the last manuscript I wrote. Both manuscripts had a core friendship group of four teenaged girls. The original four had become like sisters to me. I’d lived with them for months while I wrote them and hoped for months that they’d get the chance to go out into the world, so when I started writing four new characters, I couldn’t help but compare. The new ones felt clunky. I knew it was because I didn’t understand them yet, I didn’t know what made them tick. I’d made lists of characteristics and answered a sheet of questions about favourite foods and hairstyles but they still felt hopelessly two dimensional.
Enter stage left my unhelpful brain. Perhaps it’s because you’ve forgotten how to write characters, perhaps it’s because you’ve finally run out of ideas, perhaps it’s because this whole story is rubbish, perhaps it’s because you’re Not A Real Writer. Yeah, thanks for that brain.
So, as anxious as I was to crack on with writing the story, I decided to put time into finding each character’s voice. I walked each character down an empty school corridor and then made their crush walk towards them. It was interesting and fun to see how each girl reacted. The little gestures that gave them away; the outgoing one, the shy one, the one who covered her nerves with a joke. It was only a day’s work but it was fun. My characters had made me laugh, cringe and hope.
Next I got them to text each other – were they always completely honest with each other? Did they sometimes hide things from their friends to be kind? Did their characters still come across in just a few words? Then I tried a sleepover. Who was loud, who more reserved? It now wasn’t just about individuals but how the group dynamics worked. I’ve always been a people watcher, and this seemed like a natural progression. I was hooked.
When I finally came to write the fifth version of my first chapter I knew the girls, I would recognise them on a bus. They’d stopped being lists of characteristics and turned into actors in my head. I saw the story playing out, each character’s view of the world crystal clear in my mind.
So if you’re having trouble with your character, try writing some lists and answering some questions, but also take the time to do some writing exercises to get to know them – write scenes that you know won’t make the final version, but will help you to truly see them.