Characters are like friends. They come and go, live, die, and some stay forever as darlings you have a hard time trying to kill. Regardless of their longevity, they’re part of the backbone to writing a solid story. I’ve tried to make it a point to continuously improve how I concoct characters. As an organic writer—rather a mostly organic/pantser writer—I don’t always have the luxury of knowing when those characters will bubble up into my stories. At times I know what I want from the start and proactively create scenes or plots that can fling them along their arcs, but most of the time they creep into my story, starting off as little voices muffled against the existing story’s elements.
Obviously, the first step I do when I hear voices in my head is to ignore them. I figure that’s the sanest route. That only works for so long because then the voices grow a little bit louder, and I realize I have to drop my veil of denial and figure out what it is they’re trying to tell me. As the casting director for my stories, I give all characters a fair shot because they might have a rightful place in them, but I’ll never know unless I audition them. Some characters blast their way into the story, their strong voice and barreling attitude a reflection of their personality—as I covered in Derailing Divas. But for those whose voice amplifies at a slower rate, I need to get to know them without all the buzz of everything else. Just like with a real life person, first impressions aren’t always accurate and don’t show all those juicy flaws that are waiting to be plucked and squeezed. So I put the proposed character through a character casting call. Think of it like a narrative interview.
I take what little I know of them already and put them in a blank Word document where I can start crafting a scene with them. Slowly, the character emerges into a living, breathing person. One trick I utilize while doing this one-on-one session is to write them in present day so I can get a feel for them before plopping them into a different world or chucking them down the timeline. For me, that takes the mental pressure off of having to know exactly how they’re supposed to fit in the story they’re itching to join. One red flag for me that the character casting call isn’t working well is if the pieces just aren’t fitting together as I’m trying to write it out: I can’t think of what they look like at all, the conversation sounds generic, or I find myself pausing and racking my brain for extended periods of time as to how they would react to the conflicts I’m directing their way. If I’m at that point, they unfortunately go in the rejected slush pile.
Of course, if the character ends up being a great fit, you can ultimately recycle the session and add pieces of it that fit into the story you want them to appear in, but don’t think of the writing as wasted even if you don’t use it directly. Sometimes you have to cycle through character types to know what’s not going to work before you can figure out what will. Plus, there’s a lot of writing that never appears in a story but needs to take place and is just as important: plot arcs, characters dossiers, worldbuilding. Think of this character casting call as part of that necessary writing for fleshing out your story’s actors. Actually, think of it like a first date to weed out all the crazies. You wouldn’t want to jump right to marriage without knowing someone first, right?
Anyhow, to get you started, here are the usual scenes I have the proposed character audition with to get a feel for them:
- A scene with a psychologist and the character. This is what I use to get a peak into their mental state. Are they okay with sharing or do they clam up? Do they really tell what’s on their mind or do they give answers they think they should?
- Two bar scenes—one crowded and then the other relatively empty. This will show you how they react in an intimate vs. a more popular setting. Something to keep in mind is what kind of bar that character would go to if any? Divey, clubby, loungey, or maybe they’re a stay at home couch drinker? What kind of music is playing? What are they drinking? Are they a lush, one accident away from AA? Or are they leaning toward straight edge?
- A stroll around an urban, rural, or suburban setting. What is it that the character thinks about while they wander, or are they going somewhere with an intense purpose? Where do their eyes go if they’re observant? Where are they going and where are they coming from?
Even if you don’t have an existing story, the character casting call method is a great way to get inspired to create a story that would be great for the character you’re auditioning. Turn these one-on-one sessions into a creative playground and have fun with them!
[Featured photo credit: Janelle]