Take Your Characters Hula Hooping

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A hula hoop contingent in the 2007 Summer Sols...

A hula hoop contingent in the 2007 Summer Solstice Parade, Fremont Fair, Seattle, Washington marched the route while “hula hooping”; they deliberately had an oversupply of hula hoops, and continually urged people in the viewing crowd to join them. Many did, at least briefly. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The best plot in the world won’t go anywhere without great characters for your readers to experience it with. Readers, whether they know it or not, live vicariously through your characters. If you’ve done your job right they will become emotionally invested in your characters and care about what happens to them by the story’s end.

Characters deliver our story to the reader through the events that unfold in the plot. If you really do your job right, your characters will grow, evolve and be forever changed by the resolution to your story’s conflict.

This change can be as simple or as earth shattering as you want. The more profound it is, the more satisfied your readers will be. Why? Because it means as a storyteller, you offered them a story where the stakes were high, and that, makes for good reading. These days, more than ever, your readers need to feel their time with your book is time well spent.

For me, I have come to discover that most times when my plot stalls it’s because I have begun to focus more on the plot and less on the characters. My first clue is when I write more than two pages without dialogue. It means my story is being told -not experienced.

Why does this happen? It happens because my characters stop talking to me. Always sitting on my shoulder telling me what happens next, my characters drive my plot. But when I write them into unfamiliar territory where they are not sure how they feel, what they would say or what they are experiencing emotionally and intellectually, they stop talking and my plot stalls like a car without gas.

At this point, I’m usually onto something good. After all the idea is to challenge your characters, take them out of their comfort zone, shock them. So, rather than abandon my plot’s current progression, I take a break and spend some quality time with my characters -outside of my story’s setting and away from the plot. This way I can get to know them better and even learn some things about them I never knew. The results? It’s like adding Nitrous to that stalled car’s engine.

Here are some ways I grow my characters.

Fill out an online dating questionnaire for them.
Have you ever seen one of these? They can be tedious and comical. They are designed to give a complete stranger a 360° look at who you are without boring them before they’re hooked. They ask everything from your shoe size to your bedtime. They put your sense of humor on a scale, make you choose between chocolate and vanilla and divulge your most embarrassing moment.

Play Truth or Dare.
Imagine you are at a party. Someone says, “Hey let’s play Truth or Dare.” First think about how willing your character would be to play. If they suddenly cry out, “Gee- look at the time… I gotta go.” Then you need to figure out why. If they stay for the game, think about some questions and how they may respond- truth or dare. If they keep saying truth, think of harder questions. If they say dare…don’t let them off the hook.

Invite them Hula Hooping.
One of my favorite writers, Lisa Markov (Cousin Lavinia, 2012) recently took up hula hooping. When she first told me I wasn’t sure I heard her correctly. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized this wasn’t something new I had just learned about Lisa. Hula hooping was right up her alley…energetic, colorful and fun.

One day Lisa shared with me that she was at a dead end with her new story. She just couldn’t get a hold on her characters and without them she didn’t care much about writing. So, I told her to invite them hula hooping.

Inviting your characters to join you in your favorite hobby or pastime is a great way to relax with them and get to know them better.

Would they be good at this activity or clumsy? Would they play fair and be a good sport? Would they have a lucky shirt they wore when they participated? Is this something new for them or do you share this interest with you? What kinds of things would you talk about if your minds were away from all of life’s trials and tribulations and you were having good clean fun?

Ask them to watch a marathon of your favorite TV show.
Play your favorite board game or go shoot some hoops.
Invite them to help you bake for a bake sale.
Take them fishing, rock climbing, to your spin class.
My personal favorite…spend a day at the barn.

The more intimately you know your characters, the more you can challenge them and richer their experiences will be throughout your plot.

What do you do to get to know your characters better?

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3 responses »

  1. I start working music into my story. What songs do my characters listen to? What songs mention their name, and do they hate that or love it?

    Sometimes I include music in the story – in my NaNo novel, two characters play a song on their tabletop jukebox at the diner. The song they played, “I Fought the Law” was performed by the Bobby Fuller Four. Bobby Fuller died a mysterious death, and this gave me some additional material to add to my story.

    Musical taste can also reveal a quirky side. Catherine Goldhammer’s memoir, “Winging It” truly won me over when she mentioned her daughter introducing her to Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd. (I just wish someone had fact-checked the spelling of “Syd” but that’s another post. As is the fact that “Piper at the Gates of Dawn” has its own literary references. And don’t miss Syd’s solo recording of James Joyce’s “Goldenhair”).

    Charles DeLint often includes a note in his books about the music he listened to as he wrote. So, even if you can’t get your characters to sing, the music you hear may lead your story on a new path.

    • Thanks for visiting Kim.

      Music is a very powerful tool. It is directly tied into our emotions. We can mark significant times in our lives and history by music and lyrics. Whether it’s the beating of a tribal drum or a full on rock-opera, music defines us.

      Music is a great way to get to know your characters on a more intimate level.

      Here, where you wrote, “Musical taste can also reveal a quirky side” is a good example too, of how branding can easily depict a character with few words. For example if you were to write that your character’s favorite morning stop on his/her way to work is Dunkin’ Donuts we get a different impression than if his/her favorite spot was Starbucks.

  2. I very rarely (if ever) use expressions other people use because I like to be original — but, in order to comment on your “Take your Characters Hula Hooping” piece, I’m forced to say “You blew me away” and/or “You knocked my socks off.”

    Wow! It takes so much creativity to develop a character. I, myself, can not do this. Creating a story and developing characters is not where my interest lies. I have an opinion on just about everything that goes on in our upside down world. I put my opinions in writing because I have to. I want to be (heard/read). But I digress.

    Your suggestions for character development are very illuminating. Your enthusiasm as you write shine through.

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