You know that movie, Stranger than Fiction with Emma Thompson, Will Ferrel, and Dustin Hoffman? Here’s a quick trailer if you don’t. It’s a playful look at the relationship between writers and their characters. It’s about (as Faulkner advised) killing your darlings. It’s a playful farce that experiments with tense and point of view. Though the city is never specified, wander-writers will be interested in learning the movie was filmed in Chicago.
I used to have a writer narrating my life too. I never mentioned it to anyone, partly because I knew and trusted the narrator and partly because I didn’t want people to make fun of me. I was 12 years old and the narrator was me.
“Angie heard her mother call her to dinner. She slowly closed her book and went downstairs. She knew what was coming—carrots. Angie hated cooked carrots. ‘The only good carrot was a raw carrot’ she thought.” and so on. I narrated each mundane detail in my head as if I were the main character in an epic hero’s journey.
Now, I don’t know if this is a common thing for all adolescent girls (who already think their troubles and turmoil are at the center of the universe) or if it’s a literary phase all bookworms and writers go through but I never quite grew out of it. I don’t narrate my own life any more, but I narrate the lives of others when I’m people-watching. I even assign them snippets of dialogue. I have found it a useful way to experiment with point of view and narrative tense.
I think my most damming symptom of this mental illness called “being a writer” is my tendency to have tea with the characters of my work-in-progress. I literally do pour a cup of tea, get out my notebook, and (if I’m alone) I’ll imagine I am one of the characters in my story. I’ll look across the table to the empty chair and pretend I’m talking to the writer. I pour my fictional heart out to my disembodied writer-self using first person past tense. I imagine I have already lived through the story and am now sharing my experience with a trusted friend in a safe environment where I can be completely honest.
Not only does this help me develop a voice for the character, it helps me identify their motivation. It makes them real to me so I can make them real on the page. It also helps with the plot. Which scenes does the character have to be in? What does each character do and know when? Once I have this little tea party with each of the important characters, It’s easy to identify which character’s point of view should be used for which scenes.
Of course, your milage may vary, but if you’re stuck with a bit of writer’s block or struggling to make your daily word-count. Try inviting one of your characters to tea. You might be surprised at what they tell you. But be careful and keep it to yourself.
Between narrating the lives of strangers and having tea with imaginary friends, one just might wind up in a straight jacket.
Read ~ Write ~ Wander
What techniques do YOU use to get inside the heads of your characters?1 comment