I recently watched the last ever episode of Banshee. For those who haven’t seen it, WHY NOT? I challenge you to watch the first episode and not be hooked by the time ten minutes is up.
As the final episode drew to a close and all of the characters I’d grown to know and love went their separate ways, not a happy ever after but a happy-ish for now, I found myself in tears and wondered WHY I was in tears! Nobody had died (well a lot of folk had, but not anyone I cared about). The fact is I’d come to feel close to the characters, to care about their lives and what happened to them afterwards. Except I wouldn’t know, because this was the end, and how daft does THAT sound when they’re only actors playing roles on the screen?
It got me to thinking just why I cared so much. The lead is an ex-con thief who assumes the ID of a murdered sheriff and goes on a quest to win back the love of his life, who’s now happily married to the mayor (but just happens to be an ex-thief herself, and the daughter of a mob boss who they lied to and swindled). On the surface there doesn’t seem much to root for – but, from the outset, we see our shady lead put himself in harm’s way to save a total stranger’s life. And he keeps on doing it, and keeps on doing it, and other shady characters join the party, and the plot keeps twisting and turning and thickening, and suddenly, just like the book you can’t put down, you’ve lost a whole day in your eagerness to find out what happens.
The strap line for Banshee is’small town, big secrets’, but even though it is a small town, it’s peopled with extraordinary characters. I know that in my current (never-ending) WIP, I’ve been guilty of not getting to know my characters well enough, and now am playing (soul-destroying) catch-up. So, to get to know my cast better, I’ve come up with a trio of exercises aimed at really getting into their heads, discovering secrets even I didn’t know about, and finding out what their lives were like before they stepped into the pages of my novel. Feel free to try them out, or share them, but please keep a struggling author in biscuits and link back to my site- every little helps!
Exercise 1 – Correspond with your characters!
Everyone has secrets, even the people who live in your head! So why not invite them to spill a few? Write them a letter and let them respond, or, if you’re not entirely comfortable posting letters to imaginary people, then set up an email account for them. If you’re finding it difficult to switch between author and character then try corresponding as author at your desk, and replying as character in a coffee shop / on the commute / in your PJs from the sofa (you could go as far as dressing up as them if that helps!).
So what is the point of this exercise, other than freaking out your partner / parents / dog when they wander in and find you in full period costume, writing to a fictional entity?
Well, that depends entirely on what you want to know. I tried this exercise out with the antagonist of my current WIP, keeping the following questions in mind:
- Why are you determined to kill my hero (you numpty)?
- Why did you end up so bloody evil?
- What drove you to do what you have done / are threatening to do?
- What’s your motivation and is it rational?
- What is your background?
- Are you really all that bad or is there a chance of redemption for you?
I really have written the entire first / second / ninetieth draft of my WIP without knowing any of this important (imperative) information. No one is ever as simple as good guy / bad guy, though. Round out your characters by asking them to tell you a little more about themselves, and you might be surprised by the answers!
Exercise 2 – The Job Interview!
This can work for any character: protagonist, antagonist or secondary character.
Firstly, decide which position you are interviewing for. Secondly, write a brief job spec. For example: ‘Aspiring author seeks heroine for gritty urban fantasy debut. Must be industrious, tenacious and have a few skeletons in the closet. Supernatural qualities desirable, etc etc.”
Write up your own list of questions or pick from the selection below, then put on your best suit and tie and prepare to interview your candidates!
- Name, age, sex, where do you hail from (these are mostly always essential)
- List your strengths and weaknesses
- Where do you see yourself five years from now?
- Why should I consider hiring you for this position?
- What motivates you?
- Are you a team player or more of a lone wolf?
- What are you passionate about?
- What have you learned from your mistakes?
Or how about some more outlandish enquiries?
- You win a million quid on the lottery: what would you do with it?
- What do you think about when you’re alone in the car?
- What were you like in high school?
- How would you convince someone to do something they didn’t want to do?
- You’ve been given a giraffe. You can’t sell it or give it away. What would you do with the giraffe?
What will you learn from doing this? Well, assuming you have a great plot and your protagonist is now up the tree, you’ll know exactly how he or she is going to react when you start throwing rocks at them, and how they might intend to get themselves down.
Exercise 3 – Let’s go shopping!
This is another time-consuming exercise, so make sure you have at least a few hours spare.
We challenge our characters with endless choices: the choices they make decide the route the story takes, but they also say a lot about the character.
Decide which character you’re going to get to know, then head off to your nearest town centre / supermarket / mall and take them shopping!
You can, if you wish, grab a basket or trolley and physically collect all the items that your character would buy. It does mean, eventually, you’ll have to put them back though. Or buy them. Or dump the trolley or basket in the shop for someone else to clear up, but even if your character would do this, I don’t recommend or condone it!
The easiest method is to browse as your character would browse. Would they go for the Heinz baked beans or the Tesco Value option? Would they eat baked beans? And what about alcohol? Are they a drinker or do they avoid it, and if they avoid it then do they have a reason, perhaps one that they’re hiding?
Champagne or Lambrini? Have they ever had champagne? How about fashion? Are they more of an All Saints or a Matalan girl? Do they even follow fashion or are they more of an alternative type? How about thrift shops? Do they rely on them to make ends meet, or would they rather walk around naked than wear other people’s cast-offs?
Hopefully, by the end of your shopping trip, you’ll have learned a little more about your character’s likes and dislikes, background, attitude, strengths and flaws (and hopefully you haven’t been arrested, or disowned by your partner / mother / best friend for acting like a weirdo – because they know we are anyway, right?)
If you try out any of these exercises, enjoy! I’d love to hear how you get on!
Blessed Winter Solstice to you all, happy holidays, and don’t forget to check out The Riley Pope Case Files, just 99p each from Amazon now!