Fun fact! America’s first submarine, the Turtle, was built during the Revolutionary War era and holds the claim to fame for being the first submersible to be used in combat. She was designed in 1771 to use against British Royal Navy by placing explosives on the bottoms of their ships as they rested in harbor. Though attempts to do so all failed, the stories remain as a show of America’s creative thinking and fighting spirit.
Like the Turtle, most writers need plans of attack in order to push their writing forward. What some fail to do, however, is go deep. Some of the earliest submarines, dating back into the 1500s, struggled to avoid getting caught in the mud, steer easily, or even provide air to their passengers. Over time, technology has learned from these failures and worked out kinks, bringing us to the powerful U-boats we have today. To work out design flaws for themselves, writers can ask themselves some of the same questions engineers have.
How can we get air?
Reading passages that sound too stiff, unnatural, or like they only exist to further the plot doesn’t tend to be engaging, nor inspiring. Readers will struggle to relate to characters if they don’t feel like real people. Real people breathe.
This has been something of a personal goal for me. I always want my characters to seem real on the page, and I’ve found a few techniques that work well for me.
- People watch. Working in retail, I have plenty of time to observe and listen as I go about my daily tasks. It’s not eavesdropping-it’s my job to pay attention so I can help if I’m needed. Through that, I’ve noticed the majority of people don’t hold just one conversation at a time. They may be discussing which color towels they like best, or what box would fit easiest under their beds, but throughout all of this, they’re usually also talking about their lives. For instance, if an older mother and daughter are looking at sheet sets, they might have a conversation something like this:
“Did you go to Grandma’s last night?”
“No, your dad had a rough day at work. He just wanted to sleep.”
“I didn’t make it either. The kids had too much homework. What do you think of this color?”
“It’s fine, but I think I like the other pattern better. Do you want to stop by there on the way home?”
People are social creatures by nature and are more likely to socialize while working on a task. Try watching people at a coffee shop or a park. If you pick up a quirk you never noticed before, sprinkle some of that into your writing.
- Role play. Or meditate. Or go for a walk. Do something that puts you in the character’s shoes. If you have any acting experience, jump into a monologue as that character. To capture Sam’s character more effectively, sometimes I would go to a local music store with the idea in my head that I was going to act as he would in a place like that. I’m a musician, so seeing rows and rows of violins, saxophones, guitars, reeds, sheet music, and accessories is already exciting to me, but by shifting my attention to how Sam would react, the feeling is that much more intense.
It’s nearly impossible to breathe life into a character without an understanding of what makes them tick. Go make them tick.
Why isn’t this going the direction I want it to?
One of the dangers of writing well developed characters is the risk of rebellion. Sometimes, a character flat-out refuses to behave the way the writer wants them to. Sometimes, that’s okay. Other times, it’s not.
The question then becomes how to tell the difference.
- Is there a detail I can change that would put things back on track? Right now, I’m writing a scene between two characters where one has run off into the woods in pursuit of another, but has little to no hope of finding them. She could be stopped by one character, but he does not have the skill set to get them out of there in one piece. Another character does. Should he continue down the path he’s on now, completely changing the outcome of the next chapter, or should I backtrack so he goes to retrieve help? I could change the entire outline, or I could backtrack a chapter, tweak a detail, and move forward. But how do I know which decision is right?
- Stay true to the characters. In my situation, it’s best to go back and tweak a detail. The character in question is well aware of his limits and is most interested in doing what is best for people he cares about, even if it’s inconvenient or difficult to do. If it had been anyone else, I would have changed the outline, but in this case, the character traits are in his favor.
In short, know your characters. They’ll guide your decisions, and there is never anything wrong with making a few changes.
I’m stuck! How can I get out of the mud?
To my experience, writer’s block is an indication that something isn’t working. Be it a piece of dialogue, a decision a character is about to make, or a difficult event they’re grappling with, more than likely something needs to change.
- Are you staying true to the characters?
- Is what you’re trying realistic?
- Is what you’re trying necessary?
These three questions can guide any revisions or alterations in your writing or outlines. Remember most of all, however, there is no right or wrong answer in writing. Write for you, not for anyone else, and have fun with it.
No one ever got anywhere by giving up the first time they made a mistake. Submarines took some time to go from small wooden boxes up to the massive ships they are now. So go deep. Push yourself. You’ll be glad you did.