Did you choose your protagonist or did they choose you? If you’ve got a novel in-progress, how did you come up with your main character? Sometimes mine come to me while driving, when my brain is active but my creativity is dormant. I also get name ideas from watching movie credits, and sometimes I hear a name so extraordinary that the evolution of the character and their attributes unfolds on its own. Kermitt Rictose, who was a stunt person in one of the umpteen Die Hard movies. What kind of character would emerge from a name like that? An older gentleman, affluent, entrepreneur, lives at the top of a hill in a gray, monolithic house. Too stereotyped? Okay, he’s a rock singer living on a houseboat and mows lawns for a living. Kermitt the go-getter.
Tell me everything you know about your current protagonist. I’m sure you know their physical attributes, how they look, dress, walk. But do you also know what they love, what they loathe, and what they fear? What keeps them up nights, and what drives their obsessions? If you don’t know, here are a couple of ideas.
You could just…ask them. That’s right – create a sort of back and forth interview of your character, asking them about their favorite foods, favorite color, the car they drive. It’s more challenging than you think, because it takes not only creativity but courage to really make this exercise work. What you’re doing is tuning your senses inward and bringing the act of listening to a new level. I find it takes a certain willingness to surrender before your character really starts talking to you. And they will, and when they do, you’d better be listening. No, there’s no medication that can be prescribed for this affliction. It’s called creativity and there is no cure.
Another way is by mapping your characters to actual film stars.
I find that writing realistic dialogue requires me to not only know my protag’s inner and outer personalities, but also how they express themselves and interact with other people. So I model them after an actual actor whom I’ve seen in films. In the book I just finished writing, I modeled my homicide detective after actor Timothy Hutton in his latest series, Leverage.
I’ve been watching Hutton since 1985’s The Falcon and The Snowman, where he portrayed an unlikely 19 year old American spy. And after twenty plus years of movie fandom, I feel like I know him. I’ve watched and studied how he behaves, reacts, his expressions, body language, and from that rich dataset I can infer how he would talk to his departmental underlings, the Medical Examiner, and my protagonist.
Sometimes I print photos of all my celebrity-mapped characters and tape them around my monitor, where they serve as a sort of visual Greek chorus. Other times, I tack them to my white board all in a cluster. The idea is to know and study these people, constantly. And even if they’re imaginary, they must at least be real to you. Having a face to build upon makes them broader than one-dimensional. For me, it helps bring them to life.
When it comes to your personal writing practice, you are the pilot and, generally speaking, there is no co-pilot. So you can do whatever you want, draw on any tricks of the trade, and don’t be afraid to go deep with your characters, even if it means, on occasion, talking to yourself.