Most writers have been told at least once to “write what you know.”
I resisted this advice for years when I started writing middle grade novels—my milk-toast middle-class suburban childhood was a bore. I didn’t want to write about practicing piano scales to drown out my parents’ bickering. I wanted to launch my fictional characters to distant, terrifying planets via ingenious time-travel devices!
In fact, early on, I did take to heart another piece of fiction-writing dogma you’ve probably heard in one form or another: Put your characters in the worst predicaments possible. And once you’ve done that, put them somewhere ten times worse.
Rock bottom. That was the treacherous Hellscape I was supposed to send my characters to, characters as far from me, emotionally and physically, as I could make them.
The problem was: my characters never really developed. I could slap on goals, desires, and dramatic flaws. I could invent detailed backstories. Move them around my imaginary stage, put witty lines in their mouths, and make them jump through flaming hoops. But flat they remained, like cut paper dolls pressed between the pages of my manuscript.
I’ve learned another way of looking at characters, though. My brilliant editor Kathy Dawson pushed me to “go deep” – in fact, she refused to put my book on the calendar until I did. Still, at first, I was as resistant to “going deep” as I was to “writing what I know.”
The Eyes We Avoid Meeting
In her beautiful essay “Strangers on a Train,” author Yiyun Li talks about “the eyes we avoid meeting.” Shy people, or introverts as we’re now called, know about these eyes, because often they are our own, dropped, turned vaguely away, at the moment of intimate contact with other human beings. But writing fiction, she says, is a kind of staring. You can’t turn your eyes away from your characters. “You have to stare at them,” she says, “for much longer than is comfortable for both of you.”
This way you get to know characters is layer by layer, until any dishonesty is stripped away. I believe all characters try to trick us. They lie to us. …They’re not going to tell you the whole story about themselves, in fact, the stories they do tell will say more about how they want to be perceived than how they actually are. There’s a certain resistance to being known, and that’s true of characters and real people. People don’t want to tell you their secrets. Or they lie to themselves, or they lie to you.
There’s a certain resistance to being known. Here was the concept that unlocked deep characterization for me because, well, I understood on some level that I had that same resistance! When you resist going deep with your characters it’s often because you are also resisting going to places you yourself don’t want to face. By protecting your characters you are protecting yourself.
Once I began staring at my characters, my whole relationship to fiction writing changed. I now look at my characters with an eye to what they’re hiding from me. What they are not saying. What wool they’re trying to pull over my eyes.
And although it may not sound like it on the surface, I’ve begun treating my characters with respect. No longer are they puppets to be propelled around a cardboard stage. They are, instead, imaginary people trying to protect their softest, their most vulnerable and hidden places. They’re trying to survive with their defenses intact.
I have to summon the courage to reach out to them, to meet their eyes, to gently prod them to turn and look back at me. Until, as Li says, “they admit, or relinquish, or confess.” And in the process, as must be obvious by now, I also summon the courage to look honestly at myself.
To me, this feels radically different from creating a plot point where I throw my protagonist down a well with no rope, or sink the boat she happens to be on, and then whip up a violent storm to drown the piece of flotsam she’s barely managed to cling to. Now, if the boat sinks, it is with a specific purpose: to test my character to a point where she must confess what she has been concealing from me.
And interestingly, that confession is almost always a mystery until it happens.
Are your characters getting away with keeping their secrets from you? How can you get them to confess or admit them? There are tons of techniques for going deeper into character—character interviews that ask serious, personal questions are one method. You might start with the “36 Questions that Lead to Love,” for example (just make sure to make eye contact with your protagonist while you’re asking).
“You can feel it in a book, when a writer flinches away from looking too deeply into their characters,” Li says. I do recognize it, both in myself and in other writers now, this flinching away. It robs books of their full power to connect with readers.
This shift in my perspective as a novelist has allowed me a kind of intimacy with my characters that was closed to me when I was merely torturing them for the sake of making a “good story.” It’s a hundred times more honest. And I like to think it has blown life into them, so that they become characters—even the terrible antagonists!—that a reader can feel and see clearly, and begin to love, and empathize with, and so begin to cross over the river that divides us all.
Writing fiction, I think, is all about building careful bridges between hearts.
About Gail Shepherd
Gail Shepherd is a middle-grade novelist who also writes in the K-12 education field. She has spent her life churning out whatever anybody would pay her to write, from the glamorous (award-winning restaurant criticism, crime coverage for Agence France-Presse) to the ridiculous (newsletters about rebar, catalog copy for SPANXtm). Her debut middle grade novel, The True History of Lyndie B. Hawkins publishes March 26, 2019. She lives in South Florida with her little family and a whole lot of mosquitoes.