Wooden characters are death to a piece of fiction. The surest way to avoid stiffness is to take on each role as if it’s your bid for an Oscar. That’s right. Become each character as you write them. What? You’ve never heard of method writing? Well, imagine you’re five years old again and playing pretend. You’re not faking being a princess or a superhero. In your mind, that’s exactly who you are.
Talk about control!
With it you bring depth to your character—backstory, motivation, emotion. None of it has to be real for longer than it takes to write and polish your creation, but for that length of time, it’s who you are.
Let me show you what I mean with this short piece.
Death of a Lifetime
His arctic presence looms. His tone—I should know that voice—demands a response. But my confusion reigns. Besides, all the words have already been spilled; they puddle at our feet. What is there left to say? I’m sorry sounds trite when sorrow is this profound. And why would he hear my whisper when he ignored my screams?
My heart pounds. My head spins. My breath comes in tiny gasps, as if sucked through a coffee stirrer.
Tin-can words seep through the cotton in my ears and slide over the surface of my addled brain like pieces of a face-down jigsaw puzzle—cardboard colored confusion. Try as I might, I can’t assemble them into anything that makes sense. Later. Maybe later.
My arms rise to protect my slowly shaking head from the contempt that batters harder than fists. I slide down the blue-painted corner to fold into a tight ball on the beige rug. My trembling outside shivers in pale sympathy with my quaking inside. Despite my determination, tears trail down my cheeks.
I plead inside my head. Just stop! Go away! Please go away ...
He doesn’t, so I do.
Darkness. Silence. I draw a cautious breath. My ears quicken. I hear nothing but the pendulum of the wall clock swinging to and fro. I extend my senses, but recognize no menace.
I unfold the origami figure that is me and stumble stiffly to my feet. Wandering aimlessly, I explore the strange emptiness that has been my home for nearly a lifetime.
A death has occurred. I feel the absence, and I mourn.
I am alone. Hollow. My feelings have fled—or are numb like novocained nerves. Alone is no longer a precious refuge, but a prison I don’t have the strength to escape. Blame is a decaying corpse to be tripped over in the dark.
I belch a bit of emptiness that would pass for a laugh in company. But I have no company, so I acknowledge it for what it is—despair.
I eye my car keys. My phone. My laptop. I stop and consider. Where would I go? Who would I call? What would I say?
Sympathy. Is that what I want? Is that what I need?
No. What I want is to be sheltered from a reality my mind cannot absorb. What I need is to be tightly held, soothed by someone who gives a damn. I need to be reassured that all will be well, even if every word is a lie.
But I don’t have the words, so I can’t ask. Who would I ask if I could? I have no answer. There is no one left. Nothing left. And reaching out requires the strength to, well, reach.
And so I mourn my dead alone and uncomforted. It wasn’t a sudden thing. I tried to stave it off every way I knew. But duty is no substitute for love. Fear is not respect. And decades of devotion are irrelevant once the drained and neglected well runs dry.
So there you have it—backstory, conflict, resolution, a new normality for the protagonist to adjust to.
I became the protagonist—this is fiction—and so was able to portray her grief and despair as if I was experiencing it…because I was. I felt her pain, confusion, hopelessness as I put it on paper. Imagine doing that with each major character in your story.
I only had one character to deal with in this one, but the technique works with as many major characters as your imagination gives rise to. Give it a try, but be careful--the only thing harder than being a writer is living with one.
Fred Waiss is a former high school teacher and coach who writes poetry, articles, short stories, novellas, and novels as the muse attacks; as an author he considers himself a work in progress.