by Gary Fearon
"If you could read my mind," Gordon Lightfoot once sang, "what a tale my thoughts would tell." We may approach a story that we write as one single story, but it has more layers for readers to enjoy when we take advantage of the fact that each of our main characters has his or her own hidden history.
How do we unlock those secrets deep inside our fictional friends? I offer these five easy pathways to perception.
FEEL THE FEAR
Knowing your characters' primary goal for the story (finding the right mate, conquering an enemy, winning a case), imagine the worst that can happen to them. What will be the consequences if they fail? What obstacles can you put in place to make it all but impossible to succeed?
Not feeling their pain yet? Up the stakes by giving them an internal struggle in direct conflict with their goal. Claustrophobia could be a roadblock for a race car driver. A med student with a queasy stomach also has demons to contend with. There's wonderful irony afoot when someone is their own biggest obstacle.
One by one, sit your heroes, villains and other significant characters across from you in a virtual chair and play doctor. Dr Sigmund Freud, that is. Or Dr Joyce Brothers. (Or Dr Ruth, if you dare.) Ask your character probing questions about their life, their background, their goals, etc. But don't stop there. Get really personal and ask why they became a brain surgeon, why they want to be a rock star, why they promised themselves to see the world before they're 30.
But don't stop there either. Keep digging deeper until you uncover the real reason why it's a matter of life and death to them that they succeed in their goals. Persist, because they'll be as evasive about revealing their true selves as you are. Be Barbara Walters and make them cry if you have to. Don't worry, they'll forgive you.
CONSULT AN EXPERT
Your circle of friends and acquaintances is an extravaganza of information and personal experience to help with your character development. Is your hero a policeman? A mailman? A dental hygienist? Someone you know or someone they know would be glad to help you flesh out the inner workings of your character.
In the name of full disclosure, you may want to tell them ahead of time that it's for literary accuracy. They'll be more open and inclined to tell all. I once pummeled a nurse friend with an inquisition about hospital procedure until she accused, "You're doing research for your book, aren't you?"
Walk a mile in your character's shoes. If he or she has a penchant for gambling, spend a day at a casino. If they have a green thumb, get your fingers dirty in the garden or hang out at a nursery. If they are a beach bum, I can think of worse things than sipping piña coladas in a hammock for the sake of research.
LISTEN THROUGH THEIR EARS
Just like you, your character has very individual taste in music. Would he/she listen to pop tunes, oldies, heavy metal, country, soul, hip-hop, classical? Who are his or her favorite artists? While you're pondering your character, tune into that type of station or call up the genre on AccuRadio.com. Filmmaker Quentin Tarantino says he'll go so far as to make a mix tape to the tune of his characters.
Or maybe your story takes place in a different time period. Someone in the 1940s was hearing big band music. Two decades earlier, ragtime was the bee's knees. If your story takes place in a foreign setting, music from that region makes an ideal soundtrack for your writing.
Any of these activities can help a writer hone in on the protagonist, antagonist, and anyone else in the cast. Of course, being the brilliant and imaginative wordsmiths we are, we can simply create our characters to be whomever we want them to be. But how much more fun is it when they instead reveal themselves to us?