By Amie Chadwick
Personally, I feel as though writing is more of a discovery; the stories are already whole and finished and I just have to uncover them for others to see. In this regard, it is very easy to discover new things and new characters, or learn new things about previous characters that I never knew. However, there are often times when I misinterpret these characters at first. I will write them in as I thought they should be, then I realize that it just doesn't quite fit. It seems as though the character really is his/her own person and they are rebelling. There is a lot of deleting and frustration that follows and I began to become discouraged and overwhelmed.
I know many authors struggle in a similar way. Here are two exercises I do when I find myself struggling to make the pieces fit.
1 - Learn the character outside of his/her home world.
This is actually a really fun exercise and can become a game. Plant your character into someone else's story. I typically choose a well known book or movie, but it can be good fun to do this with another friend's world. Then play through part of the story and experiment with your character's actions and reactions. How does you character respond to Katniss Everdeen, the capitol and it's people? How would they try to help or harm Tris Prior or which faction would they be in?
This is a great way to focus solely on the character him/herself. You don't have to worry about the other characters or the setting. All of the other requirements for your story can be put off while you and your character have a little one-on-one time in a world that you also enjoy.
This is easier if you keep the character in a similar genre and time period. As much fun as it would be to send your post-apocalyptic young adult character time traveling into Middle Earth, it can be too much of a stretch for the character to adapt and thrive. You're not going to know what they will be or how they react and think if they're struggling to comprehend what a hobbit is. Unless your story includes a gigantic shift like this, I suggest you avoid putting your character through that.
2 - Have a chat with your character OR have someone else chat with them.
This can also become a game for writing groups. I find it incredibly helpful in fleshing out the character's knowledge as well as their voice. This was suggested to me by Ren, one of the Revolving Journal's co-founders and my close friend. Basically, all you do is ask your character questions about pretty much anything. It can be about the world, about their family/friends, about the enemy, etc. It can be difficult to do this for your own characters if you know them too well. However, I find that even if you know the character and the story intimately, it can be refreshing and new to have it spoken in a monologue. If you're like me and you think about your story in the form of a grand monologue, but never write any into the script, then it is unique to have the character's voice and personality behind it, rather than your own.
This is also an excellent way to double check your plot and character relationships. I like to have a monologue explaining the over-all story, and a monologue about each of the other characters (at least, those who have a relationship or impact on this character). Then I visit each of the other characters, and have them do the same. By doing this, I am exercising the characters' voices, exploring and clarifying their knowledge and opinions of the plot, and expressing their opinions and feelings toward one another. That last point is vital. This is the time for you to put all of the character's feeling into words, particularly those vague or unspoken emotions that may be the spotlight of the story, or may hardly be noticed. Despite the fact that the reader will never see these explanations, it will clarify the character's feelings and provide you with a guide as you try to express what you cannot say.
If you are struggling too much with your own knowledge, if you feel like you are getting in the way of your story, an alternative to this exercise is to have someone else ask your character questions and you write out the response. This version works really well as a game for a writing workshop. If the person feels comfortable, try having them talk as they would to the character, then write down their questions and spend time writing a response, even if it's later when you are alone. Reading the character's responses out loud to the friend can be fun while also giving them the chance to point out unintentionally missing information or changes in voice.
I really love both of these exercises. Often, when I am struggling and looking for some sort of break through, I feel like I know my characters too well for this to be of any help. However, these two games have never failed to bring some kind of change to my perspective. Also, like I said before, they are an excellent way to keep your plot in check and can act as a guide for you as you return to the story. Sometimes they can even reveal a change you need to make or something that you don't enjoy about the story. I strongly recommend trying both of these methods at least once. They are fun and can help a lot when trying to understand characters and fit them into the story.