Along with writing, I also play bass. Sometimes in bands, sometimes with the community theatre group. A few years ago, I was in one such community production - a musical - and I was one of the monkeys in the pit.
An accomplished pianist in the group came to me one day and said, "I notice you don't always play the score note for note."
He was right, of course. I like to stay close to the score, but I also add my own personality to it. This "extra jangly bits" are an amalgam of 40 years of playing music and all the influences I've encountered along the way.
If they needed someone to play note for note, they didn't need me. A recorded version would have accomplished the same thing.
When they ask me to play, they ask me to bring all that I am to the production, including the extra jangly bits.
It's the same thing as a writer. Readers want to hear your voice. Not someone else's. Mimicking our writing heroes is great for finding our voices, but let's not allow ourselves to become poor imitations. Be you.
When we write, we often sketch out our main characters, giving them some physical characteristics, some good and bad habits, and set them on their way. But too often, we give little thought to why they behave the way they do? And sometimes when we take that psychological path, we end up having them do weird stuff.
Not all evil in the hearts of men are caused by poor toilet training habits.
Two things drive your characters: A concrete goal (usually the story goal), and an abstract goal (the driving behavioural force).
Let's take an example of Luke Skywalker. In A New Hope, he desperately wants to leave Tatooine and explore the galaxy. When bad things happen, he sets out on his quest to rescue Leia and confront the evil Empire (concrete goal). That part is easy enough.
But what drives him to do this? What's the underlying abstract motivator? We can consider a number of ideas: justice, love, community... all of those are true. Can you imagine what he'd be like if he was motivated by selfishness, narcissism, and "might makes right"? Surely, he would have joined his father to rule the galaxy.
As you sketch your characters, keep in mind these two motivators: the concrete goal and the abstract goal. Use them as a filter for their behaviour to ensure they remain true to who they are.
There are lots of ways to develop your characters for your story, from checklists and templates to meditation on real-life figures. But one of the best ways to quickly create your characters in depth, bringing them to life even before you begin writing, is the Proust Questionnaire.
Proust Questionnaire for Character Development
The French novelist Marcel Proust pulled together a list of 35 questions that, once answered, pretty much tell you everything you need to know about an individual. It began as a parlour game, something to amuse friends and family, but it's real power for writers lies in using these questions to bring characters to life.
Here's a sample:
You can find the full list of questions here.
Some of the answers might come quickly, but most of them will require some thought and rumination. Now, I do wonder what it would be like to answer the questions for a character like Captain Kirk or Darth Vader, and perhaps as a thought experiment, I'll do an exercise for that.
But in the meantime, if you're looking for a quick way to build a robust character for your story, the Proust Questionnaire is hard to beat. I'm thinking of making this part of my Write Your First Novel Now! course, it's that powerful. Enjoy!
There's a corny saying you've no doubt heard that goes like this: what would you do if you knew you couldn't fail? The idea is to move beyond the doubting lizard brain fear of everything to get you to a place where you might take a little risk.
But I think that's the wrong question to ask if you're a writer.
The real question to ask is this: what would you do to guarantee that you will fail?
Then, go do that.
In the context of writing, this is a hugely significant distinction. The challenge to write honestly is not about hoping someone will like it, or changing your art based on latest trends in order to appeal to more strangers. I'm not interested in that.
What I'd really like to see is the real you in your story (not a carbon copy Stephen King parrot). Write that story that you know would never get accepted for publication anywhere, the story that most people wouldn't get or care about, but that you certainly care about.
Go write that story.
By the way, the paradox here is that the story you write that you know will fail is often the story that is the most successful.
I've been thinking a lot about the writing process lately and came across this quote from one of my heroes, Seth Godin: If we attach ourselves to the outcome, we will sacrifice the process.
What does this mean?
In the context of writing a story or a novel, it means that if we worry about:
The writing process, like any creative process, is an end to itself. In fact, I'd argue that it is the only end worth pursuing. You're not a writer unless you write. Write first, then you become what you do. The way to get there is to write as much as you can.
In the workshops, we talk a lot about getting to your 5th or 6th novel quickly, because by the time you get there, you'll be pretty good at plotting, character development, world building, wordsmithing... But you can't get to good without starting with not so good.
Being attached to the writing process looks like this:
Yes, so I'm thinking about the process these days, not so much the outcome. And I leave you with this consideration today: show up, write, share, repeat.
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Hi, I'm David. I write science fiction from a Christian worldview that promotes hope. Want to know the darker details? Click here.
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