Unzip Your Character


Unzip Your Character

To write the best characters in our fiction, we need to get inside those characters' heads. We need to understand their thoughts, dreams, fears, and desires. We need to hear their voice in our minds. We need to know what drugs are in the medicine cabinet and what cereals are on the kitchen shelf. We need to know whether his socks match or the color of her underwear. But more than that, we need to unzip our characters' skins and step inside and walk around for a while.

Such intensive knowledge of another person is difficult to acquire. It takes romantic couples a lifetime to learn about just one other person, but writers need to do it over and over again. So how do we do it, and fast? How do we unzip that skin and walk around for a while? The best way might be to do exactly that -- to try on that person and send him or her out into the wild. It might involve actually becoming your character for a short while.

There are a few great exercises out there that can help us learn to think and react the way our character would. One of my favorites is the postcard challenge. Go to a store and pick up some random postcards; they could be pretty vintage cards, or touristy ones of your home city, or anything, really. Fan out a few on a table and pick one. Now imagine you are your character, writing to someone else. First of all, who would your character choose to write to? Who would he or she send this particular post card to, and why? Try thinking about that for a while; then try writing it, using your character's voice. Really imagine what he would say and how she would say it. What would she hide and what would he boast about? What style of writing would he or she use?

Now you're on your way to getting just a glimpse at your character's way of behaving in the real world. Now pick up another postcard. This time it's from the person your character just wrote to. How would this person respond? Write a card back. Now pick up another card. It's your character again, responding to the other person. Keep this up as long as you like; keep the discussion going. Switch to longer letters. Maybe something more private, something that takes more space than a postcard, must be said. Start expanding on the hidden tensions and sadnesses in these peoples' lives. An intimate correspondence has a funny way of exposing people. It shows how they want to be perceived, but over time it also reveals the truer identity underneath that. It shows hopes and disappointments, petty disagreements and sources of anger and joy. In short, it gives you a chance to get inside that skin and try it out as yours for a while.