I found Rachel Vail‘s session on Hearing Your Characters during the Summer 2010 SCBWI Conference not just entertaining, but insightful. Using examples from her own work, she gave practical exercises for figuring out who your characters are and how each is distinct from the others in the story.
The room for this session was packed. So is my notebook with notes from what Rachel had to share. I’m going to condense it down to her main points and suggest you take any opportunity you have to hear her speak on writing.
Rachel has a background in theater and uses her acting experience to assist her when she’s discovering who her characters are. In acting, she explained, before you can enter the stage, you must know who you are. All of you. Everything is affecting you. You must enter wanting something from the scene. How do you keep it fresh day after day? By your intention. Each show you must choose a slightly different intention before you walk on stage.
The same is true for your characters.
When writing each character, you need to:
- Figure out who the character is
- Figure out what the character wants
Some of the techniques she uses to do this include:
- Explore how the character feels and moves in their skin (How do they walk? How do they feel growing up in front of everyone? How do they experience adult emotions for the first time?)
- Use a sentence completion form to interview your characters; fill it out quickly and repeat the form several times over the course of the book as the character changes (Example questions she gave were “My favorite food is…” “The worst thing I ever did was…” “When I grow up…”)
She discussed the challenge of writers block, and suggested speed writing as one cure.
- Give yourself ten minutes to speed write the answers to the character questionnaire so you know your character better.
- Give yourself ten minutes to push your way through the scene you’re afraid to write.
- If the story won’t budge, maybe it’s the wrong scene for the book. Give yourself ten minutes to write a different scene and see if the block frees up.
She concluded by offering the following tips about writing in general:
- Know everything and then learn more
- Astonish yourself
- Keep learning
- See with new eyes, again and again
- Be ruthless with your words and your characters
- Fall in love with your story
- Reward yourself
- Be true, but be kind
- Remember your characters evolve, grow and change