Monday, May 9, 2011

Getting Into Character-Guest Post by She Reads' Ariel Allison Lawhon

Ding! We have a WINNER! Thank you to everyone who entered the Find Your True Story Contest. I'm always inspired by the determination and commitment to the craft that I see in the writers who are a part of the Novel Matters community. I admire each of you. But, there can only be one winner, and that person is Tonya Couch! Tonya, your name was chosen at random as the winner! Congratulations. Oh, have I mentioned that I'm a very, very mean teacher? Did you know the last contest I held was called Teeth and Bones? Aw, that wouldn't bother you, right? heh heh. Seriously, congrats. I'm looking forward to glimpsing your work, and partnering with you to find the true heart of your story and crafting a killer "pitch line". Please contact me at and we'll go from there.
To everyone else who entered, keep reading Novel Matters. We plan to have lots of these "pop contests" over the months and there will be more opportunities to win!
Now, heres our guest post from Ariel Allison!
On Friday Bonnie explained that strong characters are crucial to a strong plot. Yet any writer worth her
salt knows that compelling characters aren’t easy to find. They are often complex, moody, and elusive. This is certainly the case with Stella, the main character in my new novel. She is aloof, glacial, and stubborn. When it comes to writing her scenes, I have to press in to the story in creative ways.

I hope you don’t have similar problems with your Protagonist, but if you do here are a few things that help me get into character. Perhaps try one or two of these ideas the next time that blinking cursor makes you cross-eyed:

Return to your original inspiration. Do you remember when your novel was conceived? That flashbulb-in-a-dark-room moment? A glimpse. A certainty. I do. And when I get stuck (which happens with more frequency than I’d like), I go back to the genesis of my idea – a single paragraph in a news headline. That article gave me a Protagonist, a Setting, and a Plot. Itcan’t write the novel for me, but it still serves as a “true north” when I lose my way:

Every August 6th for more than three decades, an attractive older woman entered a Greenwich Village bar, a place that had been a restaurant back in the Jazz Age. She sat alone in a booth and ordered two cocktails. She raised one, murmured, “Good luck, Joe, wherever you are.” She drank it slowly, rose and walked out, leaving the other drink untouched.”

Give your character a theme song. Art has a subterranean root system. It is connected in ways the conscious mind doesn’t understand. Music and painting, poetry and dancing, writing and sculpture. They breathe life into one another. I recently heard this song and knew it was Stella’s mantra. It’s filled with anger and revenge and fire, just like her. Getting into characteris now as easy as clicking play.

Look her in the eye. My particular novel-in-progress is based on a real person. Because the events happened in 1930, there are few pictures of her available. But I did find one and I keep it near me while I write. She’s a complex character and the story she’s telling follows suit. It’s easier to hear her voice when I see her face. Your Protagonist may not be a real person but I bet you can find a good likeness. Print it out. Tape it to your computer. And let her speak.

Sit with the story. A friend recently admonished me for over-thinking. I do this when I can’t get a grip on the narrative. I try too hard. “Allow yourself to sit with the story without writing a thing,” she said. “Just sit. And only when the story jumps on you are you allowed to write a single word.” I took her advice. And after three hours of uninterrupted silence, it worked. Staying up until 1:00 a.m. has never left me so energized.

I imagine that each of you have your own tricks for getting into character. Those who've spent time in the theater seem to be particularly good at this. If you have a tried and true method for luring your characters onto the stage, do share!


Anonymous said...

What a great post, Ariel, and what great advice. I love hearing how other writers work their craft. What an intriguing story you're writing. And what a fabulous photo.

For me, once I've gotten to know my character, it's much easier to slip into his or her world. As the story progresses, she or he is with me always, telling me his or her story in increments. But I do enjoy that "getting acquainted" time, when the novel idea is in its infancy. That's exactly where I am now -- playing with ideas and characters. I'm waiting for one of them to raise her voice above the others and say, "Mine! Pick mine. You won't be disappointed."

Anonymous said...

PS: Happy Birthday, Debbie! Have a great day.

Susie Finkbeiner said...

I love the theme song suggestion! Awesome! And the picture, too. It's so easy for the character to morph between writing times.

Thank you so much!

Fantasypoet said...

I love both the song and picture suggestion. I know who my protagonist resembles, but I'll have to look for a song for her. Thank you.

Ariel Allison Lawhon said...

Sharon, thanks! This story has consumed me. By far the hardest thing I've written but also the most rewarding. Here's to hoping it comes alive to readers one day as well.

Debbie, I didn't know it was your birthday. May you have joy and laughter today!

Susie, I've never given a character a theme song before. This one came out of the blue and it was so perfect I couldn't resist. Like anything else, I don't think a theme song can be forced. But I'm glad I found this one.

Michelle, glad you like them! I'm quite proud of Stella at the moment. She's coming to life rather nicely.

Zan Marie said...

Wonderful post, Ariel! These are some lovely suggestions. I think the light bulb moment is the most important for me. My present protag came to me in a dream--I'm not joking. It was vivid and she has kept on growing as I work with her story. ; )