“Interview” my characters? Puh-leeze. (But it kinda works)

posted in: Writing Advice | 0

writer's blockAfter a frenzy of writing during NaNoWriMo and a few weeks of intense noodling around with my outline to sharpen plot points and firm up the mushy middle, I was meant to jump back into writing my novel this month.

Except I was immediately paralyzed.

Every sentence sounded clunky and awful. Nothing felt like it was going anywhere. My story had so many holes, so many unresolved issues, and the outlining had made them clearer without offering any obvious solutions. I wasn’t entirely sure what I was saying or where this story was going. The writing was agonizing, frustrating and involved more backspacing than actual typing.

Writer’s block. I think that’s what it’s called.

In empathy, a poet friend asked how I wrote my first book, a work of creative non-fiction about life inside witch camps in West Africa. “Well, it was all just there!” I said. I relied on my notes, my journals, my research and my transcribed interviews. I didn’t have to create the story, I just had to organize it.

(That’s not remotely true, as anyone who writes creative non-fiction can attest. But let’s just go with it for now. Mid-whiny breakdown is not the time for razor-straight accuracy.)

“So why don’t you interview your characters?” he asked.

My eyes rolled.

Ugh, I hate this kind of advice. You know the stuff: write a letter to your character. Imagine your character 20 years older, or 20 years younger. Put your character in a completely different situation – getting their oil changed, preparing a commencement address, buying bus tickets in a country that’s not their own. Write your character’s obituary.

Every time I run across this kind of advice, all I can hear is a smart-mouthed voice in my brain saying: “My characters are imaginary. We get that, right?”

I think I made some polite noises to my friend. I appreciate that when you’re blocked, you can be a real pain in the arse and take it out on people who don’t deserve it. I didn’t want to offend someone who was genuinely trying to help. Writing is lonely enough – no need to have the frustration of a block cost you friends and admirers.

And then, I very quietly – I mean very quietly – wrote down what I thought my characters might say if I interviewed them.

And damn, it was helpful!

I “asked” them about the things I couldn’t figure out about the plot. Why did they do that? How did they cover their tracks? Who was their ally? What did they really think about this other character? Why did they think he did some of the things he did? When did they know they’d been found out?

There was something about it that caused the floodgates to burst – I sat down and immediately churned out 1,500 words. Same the next day. And the day after that. In the space of about an hour, I was writing three days’ worth of output. Whenever things slowed to a trickle, I moved on to another character, who seemed just as eager to answer my questions.

Now, let’s be clear: very little of this will actually make the novel. This is thinking out loud that I need to do. This isn’t even puke draft stuff. This is more still-eating-questionable-shrimp-at-the-buffet draft. But there’s something really liberating about sitting down, adopting my character’s persona and writing from his or her perspective for a while, answering the questions that are still swirling around in my mind.

I’m just starting to go back and read what I’ve written. I’ve done this with five characters and need to do it with at least two more. I have more to say, or rather, more questions to ask, of a few characters.

I’ve set a deadline for myself to move past this – I need to get down to the business of writing by July 1. This has been great, but eventually, I need to do the work of writing the book. For real. Hopefully this will set me up for a better second-time-around start.

But I will likely still roll my eyes whenever I hear about writing my character’s Tinder profile.

More on breaking writer’s block:

(Photo courtesy of Unsplash)

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