One of the characters in my newest short story is mute. Not on purpose—it’s just that I don’t know enough about him to get him to say anything. So far, all I’ve got out of him is “yep,” “nope,” and a couple of nods and glares. And he’s kind of important. He’s a great, big, gaping cipher in the middle of my story, and I need to figure him out before I can move forward.
It shouldn’t be this hard, right? He’s an imaginary person, and I can pretty much get him to do or say what I want.
Whatever he does or says, it has to jive with the choices he makes within the story. His actions and the things he says have to be authentic and honest, even if they are all imaginary.
I recently re-read an interview with Erin Morgenstern, author of The Night Circus. She said that she was bored with her original story and decided to send the characters to the circus to stir things up. I was inspired, and decided to see if sending my character on a field trip would help me figure him out.
Field trip # 1: The zoo
Okay, it’s a lot like the circus, so no points for originality–but it’s definitely a destination where almost anything can happen. I found out that my character is “that guy” who will jump into the baboon enclosure if someone dared him to and if there was an audience.
Field trip # 2: A job interview
Not exactly a walk in the park, but this helped get my character talking about himself and his past, and helped me understand how he would react under stress. I found out he’s a bit of a showman in an interview, and adept at highlighting his accomplishments. But he is stymied when questions about organization and prioritization come up. Maybe I should get him to take the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator next. Hmm…
Field trip # 3: A funeral
This was a bit of a downer, but it helped me get a grip on how well my character would mingle with other people in a more somber, emotional environment. It turns out he is uncomfortable with displays of emotion, and doesn’t want to be relied on to help other people manage their problems or their grief. He prefers to work through his own emotions by himself, and he expects other people to do the same. Sheesh. No wonder his girlfriend is on the fence.
So will any of this help? I think the exercise was valuable. As I continue to flesh out the scenes in my story, these tidbits about my character will help me figure out how he reacts to events, how he interacts with other people, and why he makes certain decisions. It might even change where my story ends up. And I hope that will help make my story better.
What about you? Where will you take your characters?