I received a standard piece of fiction writing advice in an electronic media writing class during my undergraduate studies. While the class focused more on advertisements and nonfiction, our final assignment was to write a treatment for a fiction TV show. My professor encouraged us to develop our characters by talking to them. He told us how a past student said she had trouble doing this, but once she engaged with her character, the character “wouldn’t shut up.”
I think about my characters, and the stories which hold them, a lot, especially when I walk to work. I have a ten minute walk to and from the metro, which gives me plenty of time alone with my thoughts. I’ve often used that time to flesh out stories and come to some interesting realizations about my characters.
However, I don’t talk to them. I find this difficult to do, as I see the characters as separate from my world. They’re not people I engage with, even mentally and with the lens of pretense that “talking to your characters” requires. When I do get my characters to talk, it’s to each other. Sometimes that dialogue makes it into the story, but other times, it’s side conversations that take place off-page and help me write what needs to be there.
My most common method of character development, though, is engaging with myself. When I’m thinking about my characters, I like to pretend I’m being interviewed about them after the story’s been finished. I pretend I’m being asked questions about the story, and I answer them — usually in detailed, humorous answers that help to shape my own thinking about the story (rest assured, I do this in my head — I don’t make it a point to scare my fellow commuters by talking to myself).
I find this AMA (“Ask Me Anything,” for those who don’t know) format very helpful in discovering things about my characters and, subsequently, their stories. By explaining deeper motivations than what appears on the page, it helps me figure out why things happen and how I should write them. Sometimes it gives me better ideas to shape things that aren’t working as I’ve written them.
I also find it more helpful to do this in my head (or quietly mouthed to myself) as opposed to writing it down. Notes are handy, and the few times I’ve forced myself to write notes, I’ve gotten good results. However, the off-the-cuff nature of pretending I’m doing an AMA helps me capture ideas as they flit into my answers. Writing it down, for me at least, would take this aspect away, as I’d spend too much time trying to write the correct thing to really let the answers I seek flow through. Speaking is less structured but, in many ways, more truthful.
Be it through an imaginary AMA or an imaginary conversation with characters, I find it interesting that one of the best ways to write fiction is to engage in a fictional conversation. Perhaps that act in and of itself is what helps us write.