Creating Real Novel Characters – Go To The Dark Places

One of the best writing talks I’ve ever heard was delivered by romance novelist Jennifer Cruisie at the Spring 2003 Writers Retreat Workshop. She gave the same talk again at the Romance Writers of America National Conference later that summer, and it was just as inspiring the second time around. She talked about going all-out in your writing. Digging deep. Living in your story. Bringing your characters to life. And she talked about something I’d never thought about before: going to the dark places.
“You have to go to the dark places,” she said, “to bring the story back to your people.”
What does this mean: go to the dark places?
As a novelist, every story you write, every character you create is part of you. That doesn’t mean your characters are just like you, or vice versa. No one wants to be like their “bad guys.” Half the time we don’t even want to be like our good guys. They’re crazy, going off on all these adventures, getting themselves into conflict at every turn. Who wants that!
Even though your characters are unique individuals and they aren’t exactly like you, there’s a part of you in them. You draw on parts of yourself to create them… even the bad guys. Part of what contributes to their conflict comes from something in your experience, or in your thoughts and feelings.
That’s the icky part of novel writing. Not many of us enjoy dredging up these emotions. Sometimes we don’t even know where they come from, they’re buried so deeply. You’d pay a psychologist good money to walk you through this process, and at least there, you’d be in a safe space! With novel writing, you’re on your own.
To access the proverbial dark places, you need to quiet your mind. You need to reflect on who your characters really are. Draw from deep within yourself to bring them to life. Sometimes writing in a journal, asking one of your characters some tough questions and writing the answers in your character’s point of view is helpful. Talking into a tape recorder, asking questions and answering in your character’s voice can also help you access the dark places.
When you stop liking the answers, when they start to make you feel uncomfortable, that’s exactly the time to keep going. You’re onto something. Resist the urge to protect your characters — and yourself — as the messiness of real life intrudes into your calm fictional world. By allowing your characters to be themselves — their icky selves — you are bringing them to life. You are making them real for your readers. You’re creating a foundation for a novel your readers won’t be able to put down. The characters will live on after the last page is read. Your readers will be back for more.
It’s a scary journey sometimes. If you can bear it, your work will reflect the risk you took in going to the dark places. You’ll reach a level of honesty and vibrancy that will jump off the page. You’ll touch your readers in a very real way. They might not know how or why your work speaks to them so strongly, but they’ll thank you for it. You’ll never know how they might grow from the experience of reading what you brought back from the dark places. That’s what it means “to bring the story back to your people.”
As a novelist, when you succeed once in going to the dark places, you’ll never be afraid to go there again.

No Comments Found

Leave a Reply