Sound too weird for you? Good! It is weird. But you’re a writer, so you’re comfortable with weird. This is a fairly invasive/immersive solution to a wide-spread problem we have when we’re trying to effectively tell our stories in a way that will connect with our intended readership.
Connecting with your characters and being immersed in your world through their perspective is a huge key to unlocking verisimilitude within your story. You kinda need that if you want your readers to keep turning pages.
This method can be executed as you’re crafting your characters, after you’ve crafted their full arcs and development, while you’re revising, or just if you feel like it.
WARNING: I am not a lawyer, but I’ll still advise you (in fact, I demand) that you don’t do anything that would attract the attention of police officers. That includes attracting the attention of people who tend to attract the attention of police officers. You all know the type. You also probably shouldn’t engage in any behavior at work that would raise alarm bells. That being said, live your best life and all that. But consider being careful about it.
Here’s how I do it—and feel free to adjust this method as you see fit—I write a character to whom I’ve given attributes, flaws, desires, motivations, fears, and a fight-or-flight response that matches these things.
Map those elements out on paper or digital screen if you haven’t already. Memorize them.
Let’s use a semi-complex character as an example: Scott Bakerman is a terrible detective tasked with solving the mystery of the century. What mystery? What century? Why a terrible detective? None of that matters right now.
What are his traits?
- He’s cocky. Can’t see past the end of his own nose, that guy. But this case has forced him to almost realize this as a fatal flaw of his. If only he can get past it, maybe he can solve the mystery of the century. This is the flaw that keeps him from unlocking the status of “good detective.”
- He lacks empathy (duh). Guy’s been through a lot in his life and seen some serious s**t through his work. And (because aren’t they all) he’s an alcoholic. Another flaw.
- He’s always ready to fight. This is a trauma response as well as response to his common environment. This connects with the first two points because he can’t disconnect his rage from his other attributes—being an asshole was always going to come with the rest of the package, wasn’t it?
But you’re nothing like this guy. You’re not a detective, much less a terrible one. You’re not a drunkard—well, you are a writer, so….
You care about people. So how do you unlock the ability to be the main character you start with? (Meaning you’re using his base characteristics before any real change happens in his behavior.)
My suggestion is this: take a character from a movie or an RPG whose behavior and performance really impacted you. Use them as inspiration. A character like Arthur from Red Dead Redemption 2. Or Jules from Pulp Fiction. The characters you draw inspiration from do not have to be exactly like your character; they need only have enough in common with them that you can draw inspiration from their body language, their dialogue, their fight or flight responses and their tone of voice. If you can’t pretend to be something you’re not, well, pretend to be a character played by someone who’s an expert at pretending to be something they’re not.
Pick that character. Go about your day with their posture. Their intonations. No matter the situation in which you find yourself, be that character. Except also be a drunk, cocky, terrible detective. Can’t find the cereal you want for breakfast? Or your coffee? Go on a silent, anger-fueled mission to find it. Do you check to see if you have your keys, wallet, and phone? STOP. An incompetent, terrible, cocky detective wouldn’t. Fly by the seat of your pants with all the confidence of a total moron.
Have arguments in the mirror, pretending you’re speaking to your supervisor (of course you can use your real supervisor or Scott Bakerman’s. Doesn’t matter). Your supervisor is telling you that you need to get your s**t together, Scott Bakerman. But Scott Bakerman believes he has his s**t together. Argue why he’s wrong and you’re right. If your story is serious, make sure your argument sounds serious. If it’s a comedy, then have a ball!
Do NOT be a total ass to strangers. If you have friends who are on board with this, let them help you. But don’t be a jerk to people who are just going about their lives or doing their jobs. (Unless they deserve it. Just kidding. Mostly.)
You are Scott Bakerman. Until you know how he’ll react to any situation. Mom calls? Don’t let her get a word in edgewise. Make sure she hears you swishing your Scotch on the rocks around in the glass. And the slurping. Make sure, Scott, make sure she hears the slurping. Squint a little when she tries to talk. She can’t see you, but that doesn’t matter. Scott Bakerman would slightly squint when his mother tries to talk to him.
When someone you dislike interacts with you, behave as you would, but think about how Scott Bakerman would respond. A series of grunts. Wry laughs. Short, witty shots at that person’s ego.
Okay. That’s where we start with Scott Bakerman. The real challenge will be how he overcomes conflicts. How he changes. An event will happen in your life that requires empathy. This is equivalent to how Scott Bakerman would respond while having the revelation that other people matter. Perhaps his shoulders would fall a bit. Perhaps you’ll shut your mouth for a moment, and in a new phase of humanity, you stutter to find words of comfort for that person or animal. At first, you wouldn’t be able to. It would be awkward. Body language, dialogue, and tone would reflect that. Long, slow blinks, sighs, slight shakes of the head. Scott Bakerman has always been a man of few words, and that’s not likely to change.
His behavior is what will redeem him beyond this turning point.
Take it and run with it.
If anyone’s interested in a post about a different character type, or seeing Scott Bakerman’s arc through to the end, let me know! I’ll happily continue.
This has absolutely worked for me when I just cannot imagine my characters moving through the world I’ve created for them. Putting myself in their shoes and seeing their reactions in my world is a crazy, bizarre, but very effective method of getting in touch with my characters.
I actually haven’t shared this one with my clients yet, so this is also an exclusive from me.