The other day I was writing a scene in which two of my main characters were going to exchange gifts and I panicked.
Well. I mean, for those who know me I didn’t really panic panic. I don’t really do that kind of thing. But, I did pause and worry a bit because I was really stumped with what Rick would buy for Ana. I had part of the gift picked out, but it needed something more and I hit a wall. The panic slipped in because I thought, wait, don’t I really KNOW my character? Don’t I actually know her in and out? And don’t I know Rick well enough to know what he would get her?
I figured it out (in a different and lovely route , by the way), and then reminded myself that just because I don’t know what gift to give her on demand did not mean I did not know my character. After all, I know my husband really well, but honestly, when his birthday or Christmas comes around, I can easily find myself at a loss at first. (And no, this was not a problem at all for his most recent birthday last week. Why do you ask?)
But it called to mind one of my own exercises in character development, which is to basically take my characters with me, everywhere I go. People have asked me if I am thinking of my characters all of the time and my answer is yes. Their whole world exists inside of my head, so they experience what I experience. And the converse is true, too. I’ve joked with some that I don’t know what I’m going to do when I finish writing this current novel, so immersed am I in my characters’ lives… wait, what? Oh yes, the exercise in character development.
Basically, if I take my characters with me I can determine how they would act and react in any given situation. What would they say? How do they feel? One of my characters is an actor, so I go to a movie, and I imagine he and Ana attending a premiere or how he (Rick) would possibly analyze the movie from an actor’s perspective. I go to my nephew’s high school graduation and consider what Ana, who is a high school principal, would say to her students at their graduation. At a restaurant, what would they order? I took my 4-year old to an amusement park for a birthday party recently and various things floated through my mind… what would a Disneyland trip look like? One thing that makes me smile about my characters is a scene that is not in my novel, and yet it exists: Ana likes to carry her children on her shoulders, but this freaks her husband out because he is afraid of heights and cannot watch it happen. Does she enjoy taunting him a little bit with this behavior? Absolutely.
It fascinates me, as well, how often I’ll be having a conversation with someone and think, “OH, this sort of thing just came up in my novel – my characters were thinking…” And this is another example of how I take my characters with me. In fact, drugs in high schools and how administrators and law enforcement deal with it came up in a conversation at dinner with my cousins the other night and I was thinking about how this same situation came up in a scene I had written not long ago. How would Ana respond in this situation? How would she change how she ran things in her school based upon this conversation?
Imagining these scenarios helps me get to know my characters inside and out. Just because Ana may never actually be IN a grocery store doesn’t matter. It is the fact that I know how she shops and what she buys that helps make her other actions authentic. It is what makes me shake my head at myself when I write a bit of dialogue and say, “she would never say that” and then later determine just exactly what kind of gift(s) Rick would give Ana after all.
Willie Nelson knows what I’m talking about. “I’ll take you with me, everywhere I go. I’ll put you in my pocket, who will know…”