This blog post is one I wrote for the South Carolina Writers Association, Cola II chapter. It was originally published on the chapter’s website June 21, 2019.
In a past work life, I was an executive coach. A coach facilitates discussions with others to help them gain self-awareness, clarify goals, achieve their objectives, and unlock their potential. Rarely does a coach “tell” someone what to do or offer direct advice. Instead, she asks insightful questions that lead to self-discovery. While professional coaching requires many hours of training, any writer can employ simple coaching techniques to develop characters.
I can’t take credit for creating this writing technique, but I have used it for years and can say it’s truly magical. My readers have said things like “your characters literally jump off the page” or “I feel like I know these characters personally.”
What I discovered was that the typical character profile is the equivalent of “telling” characters who they are, what they believe, and how they are supposed to behave. If you have flat characters, it may be because you don’t have enough insight into what drives them to act or react when faced with your plot. Through a coaching-type process, you can gain a deeper understanding of characters than you can with typical writing techniques.
Here’s how it works. If you are further developing an existing character, or creating a new one, as I was this week for the fourth book of my Enid Blackwell series, simply coach that character to self-discover who he or she is. You do so by asking the character a series of questions. For example, ask your character to respond in first person to the questions below. You simply answer as though you are that character. Write stream-of-consciousness style for a full five minutes. If you run out of steam, simply reply, “I don’t know what else to say,” over and over until you can resume. Set a timer on your phone or computer and don’t cheat by stopping early. Some of the most revealing character revelations come near the end of the five-minute session.
Here are some examples of character-coaching questions:
· How would you finish this sentence: Everything will make sense when . . .?
· What do you see when you look in the mirror?
· What was the most defining moment of your life?
· Who was the most influential person in your life—why?
· What are five things you want to do before you die?
Note that these are “deep” questions, not superficial ones like, “What’s your favorite color?” There’s nothing wrong with asking easy questions, but you won’t learn much from them.
Remember that when you are writing in first person as your character, you must resist the urge to force the answers. You are merely the conduit—the reply should come from your character. While it may seem weird at first, close your eyes and try to hear your characters talking to you. If you can push your preconceived notions about them aside for five minutes and just let them talk, you’ll be amazed at what they have to say.