In my one-day workshops I do an exercise called “Shocking Coffee.” You, the author, imagine you are seated with your main character over a cup of coffee. She tells you she doesn’t think you’ve quite captured her. That surprises you a bit. I mean, after all, you created her.
So you ask, “In what way?” And your character tells you something that shocks you. What is it? (I have the students write for one minute.)
Then I say: You’ve spit out your coffee. Your character hands you a napkin and then tells you something even more shocking! (Write for one minute.)
I was conducting this at a recent conference, and while the students were writing a voice said, “Wow!”
Another voice chimed in. “Exactly!”
And everyone laughed. When we were done I asked a few people to share what they’d come up with. One woman said this clarified the entire novel for her. Another said this offered a whole new direction she’d never thought of.
But one student, a middle-aged man, seemed troubled. He had explained earlier in the workshop that his story was about a man carrying around a load of guilt because he’d accidentally killed his brother years ago. He fears that if his secret ever gets out it will hurt a number of people.
Now he said, “The more shocking thing he told me was that he intended to kill his brother, because he was jealous.”
There were audible oohs and ahhs throughout the room.
“But,” the man protested, “this would make him totally unsympathetic.”
The oohs and ahhs turned to No! and You’re wrong!
I asked the students, “Who is more interested in this book now?”
All the hands shot up.
The author still seemed confused.
I told him it doesn’t matter where the character has come from, or what he’s done, so long as he’s got the capacity to change and the will to try. We will follow a character like that, hoping for his redemption. Indeed, it’s one of the most powerful engines of fiction.
What had just happened was that the author, by way of a simple exercise, had gone deeper into his material than ever before. Before, he’d stopped at a “safe place.” Now he had pushed past that, and it scared him a little.
Which, I told him, is a good thing, because that’s where originality comes from. (For more on this, see my post here.)
To push through the safe places, try these exercises:
- Have a cup of shocking coffee with your Lead. Shocking and more shocking.
- Chair through the window: Imagine your character in a nice room with a big, bay window. She picks up a chair and throws it through the glass. Why would she do that? Come up with a reason. Next, write a crazy reason she’d do that. What is this telling you about your Lead?
- Closet search: What does your character have hidden in her closet that she doesn’t want anyone—anyone—to find?
More material like this can be found in my course, Writing a Novel They Can’t Put Down.
So when was the last time one of your characters surprised you? Did you go with it or resist it? What techniques do you use to deepen characters in your fiction?