In my WRIT 4530 Fiction class we’ve been talking about characters lately. Or, rather, we’ve been talking about knowing characters. And by that, I don’t mean knowing their names, how they look, or what their motivations are – though those are all important things to keep in mind – but rather actually knowing their characters to the extent that they live and breathe off the page.
The exercise I like to give students is a simple walk through a grocery store. I don’t know why it ended up being that, but I suspect it has something to do with the mundanity of going each week to buy your food and goods. It’s not exciting stuff, for sure, even if you run across some of the more interesting and bizarre people in the aisles. It’s the stuff of every day.
My reasoning is this: if you know what your characters are going to buy, if you know their routines, if you know their habits and the way they see the world, then you’re bound to trust them as they walk through your stories. After all, it never works to shoehorn the actions you want your characters to take into a plot. A good story allows characters freedom to act and react according to their own internal logic and motivations. A good story should feel effortless, as if you’re recording your characters’ actions instead of directing them. It’s a subtle difference, but a huge one at the same time.
So here’s how it works – take your protagonist to the store. It doesn’t matter if it’s a grocery market, a Wal-Mart, a Lowe’s, or the farmer’s stand on Saturdays. Take them and let them free of your influence. Watch where they go. What they focus on. How they react to the people around them, what they buy, what they ignore. Gain a sense of who they are when you’re not moving them like a chess piece. By the time you put them in your story, it’s not going to be a challenge anymore to gauge their moves and decisions. It’s going to be just like it was when you took them to the store. You’re going to be watching them, from a safe distance, and their actions are going to be genuine and honest.