More On Storytelling: How Well Do You Know Your Characters?

Ah, Twitter–again! And it happened so quickly I can’t even send out a proper thank you to the originator, except to have faith that the sharing of good ideas is the only recognition many of us on Twitter really seek. Today, it was a link to the Fast Company article, 3 Storytelling Tips From “Breaking Bad” Creator Vince Gilligin, that took me back into the creative space and my ETY series on Storytelling, with the reminder that the ability to craft believable characters within our stories is best left up to the characters themselves. Gilligin’s 3 storytelling tips are: 1) Keep getting to know your characters; 2) Make it your mission to surprise, and; 3) Embrace curveballs. I’ll let you read the article to get the details, but I want to focus on “getting to know your characters” for this post.

For anyone who has ever written fiction, the process of surrendering to the characters is one of the purest forms of escaping into another’s reality. For example, knowing something as seemingly simple as why your character chose the clothes he or she put on that morning is important. This simple choice speaks volumes about the character coming to life on the page. Is she a fashionista? Is he trying too hard? Is she from the wrong side of the tracks? Is he trying to fit in a world he doesn’t belong? Allowing the character to then tell you, as the writer, where the story will go next takes a leap of faith, especially if it contradicts the story outline you have already created.

In the following video, the prolific Joyce Carol Oates talks about her fascination with people and their personalities. Knowing a few of her characters and how they leap off the page, I believe it is her study of human nature that feeds the richness of the characters she creates. She also instructs her students to let characters find their own voice:

In a screenwriting class I took years ago, we were instructed to write 8 page bios for each of the 2-3 main characters, answering a list of 114 questions about these characters, such as: 1) What did his Dad do for a living? 2) Does he like chocolate? 3) Did she finish high school? Go to college? Grad school? Medical School? Art school? Perhaps more importantly–why?  By answering these questions about your character, a human being comes to life–one that allows the writer flexibility and versatility as the story unfolds.

The best writers understand and study human nature in-depth–in ways others do not. As a caregiver and healer, wouldn’t it be wonderful to understand human nature, and the behavioral pieces of the health puzzle, that much better? Learning more about characters–real and imagined, can add to the growing toolbox of skills needed to connect with the whole patient successfully.

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