Your primary goal here is to achieve what actors refer to as “in character.” You should be able to talk like your guy, move like your guy, think like your guy… be your guy. I have no illusions that my work is completely original, and therefore, I know full well that I am more likely to write about what I see. So, I spend a lot of time watching people. I think it is natural for writers to watch people, but I try to take it a step further:
Instead of simply observing a person, I imagine my life if I were that person. What would I eat? Who would I date? What eccentricities would I have?
And then, as part of my daily routine, I will write about what life was like when I was that person.
You’ll notice that I don’t immediately try to put this person in a story. I just write it because that’s one of my eccentricities, and I call it journaling. But backgrounds, as I described earlier (Writing Sharp Dialogue, part 1), are essential in creating any believable character. While writing a first draft, I will often write out the character’s background right there in the prose. Even if I know that later I’m going to take it out. I don’t write it all, but I write just a little more than I think I need, and then I’ll chop it all up in the second re-write.
Freddy’s chapter in “Lives” originally began with him taking a look through his apartment. You can tell a lot about a person by what they keep and what order they keep it in, so I went into several personal items that he kept and the memories associated with them. All in all, it was about ten pages and I cut every word from the final draft. Why? It wasn’t necessary to move the story along and I had learned everything I needed to know about Freddy by writing it. After writing that piece, I was so “in character” that when I wrote two lines -
Mom scooped some ice cream onto my plate without asking.
I ate it anyway.
- I knew I had his character in such a way that it wasn’t necessary to bore the reader with arcane details about his life. One of the biggest mistakes I see when I read a struggling writer’s work is the addition of unnecessary details. Make your characters strong and lean, and keep the golden rule first and foremost: If it doesn’t entertain your reader, you shouldn’t let your reader have it.
In my next entry, we’ll talk a little about how to do that.