When I began writing my second novel, I encountered a problem. One of my main characters seemed reticent, even though I knew she was full of a story. She wouldn’t engage - I’d put her in a room with other characters, and they’d just stand around. There was a lot of fidgeting and sighing. There was a lot of staring at walls, and looking at the floor. One evening, when I realised I’d spent an hour trying to describe the exact weave and colour of her living room carpet, I knew it was time for a different approach.
I needed Janey to let me in. So, rather as one might do with a troubled child, who seems to be keeping something back, I decided to abandon my schedule and spend some quality time with her. Here, based on what I tried, are my tips for getting your characters talking.
1. Take her on an outing
While drafting out my first novel, Tiny Acts of Love - I took a group of uptight characters for a spa day at a country house hotel, to see how they'd behave in bathrobes. Some of them behaved appallingly, but emotions gathered momentum, surfaced, and the scene turned out to be a pivotal one. With Janey, I took her back to her old school, to hear a visiting speaker on the subject of toddler taming. She’d probably have preferred a spa day, come to think of it, but it got her talking (well, shouting).
2. Listen to music together
Part of the story, in my novel-in-progress, takes place in the 1980s. I made a playlist of the songs Janey used to listen to back then, and played it on repeat for a few days. When I realised she had something to say about a particular drunken teenage party, I Googled the top ten for that week and played some of the tracks. They weren’t her favourites, but as in real life, sometimes it’s the ones you haven’t listened to for years that take you back. The story came out – the auditory memory unwinding all the sensory and emotional details.
3. Invite some new (ahem) friends round
Take all the characters – however minor - that appear in your book, and write their names in a circle. Draw lines between those who meet, at any point in the story, and have a look at the spidery web in front of you. Are there any who don’t meet? What might happen if they did? Would they make each other laugh? Would they make each other want to scream, cry or vomit (even better)? If so, put them on a blank page together, and let the scene unfold.
This can also work with characters from different novels. Just for fun, see what happens if a character from a previous book wanders into one of your scenes (or an army of Babycraft mums, in poor Janey’s case, marching – they would never merely wander – into her son’s Jungly Fun music class).
4. Write her a letter
If your character still isn’t communicating, write her a note, stick it in an envelope with her name on it, and leave it overnight. I tried this, in desperation, with Cassie from my first book, because I couldn’t understand why she was trying to keep her mother out of the action (out of the country, in fact - with missed planes, crises with elderly relatives, and numerous bouts of flu). By morning, I knew – possibly more than I wanted to! That particular swathe of backstory didn’t get written into the novel, but it’s there, underlying Cassie’s actions throughout.
5. Trust her
If she’s telling you something that doesn’t fit into the story - or your plan for the story - then you know you're getting somewhere. Write it down, whether it’s a scene, a feeling, a snatch of dialogue, or a visual image, and then work backwards. Recently, I had to write a new scene for Tiny Acts of Love, because my editor wanted me to smooth the transition between two parts of the story. At first I was stumped. All I could see, when I tried to picture it, was a Babycraft mum pouring a red toy watering can over Cassie’s husband’s head. I had no idea why. But I felt my way into the scene from there. In the end, it not only made sense, but pulled the last third of the book together.
As for Janey, she inconveniently (very inconveniently) fell in love with one of the other characters. The whole story flipped over like a deck of cards, but we had to go with it, she and I.
We writers are like parents, in some ways, for the characters we create. We don’t always understand them, and when we think we do, they change again. They can be baffling, and frustrating, and endlessly surprising. Sometimes, they’re so close they feel like part of you. Sometimes, they’re unreachable. But here’s what I’ve learned: just as you would with a child, you need to proceed intuitively. Don’t rush in. Don’t impose yourself on the situation. Never panic. Just take your character’s hand, and let her lead the way.
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