Robert Frost wrote in the introduction to his Collected Poems (1939), “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” This doesn’t mean writers should be producing tear-jerkers. I take it to mean that the writer must know her characters, and this is the hardest part of writing for many.
Some writers rely on the standard character’s biography, creating an entire back story of education, family structure, coming of age experiences, and more. Some of this is very useful, but for me this kind of writing doesn’t get at who this character really is.
One of the most successful approaches for me is asking the character how he or she feels about a current social situation or crisis. How does she feel about it, and why? This is where I just start writing and wait to see what comes out. If I’m trying to discover a character who completed school some years ago, I might find myself writing about where she chose to sit in the classroom and why. Was she a good student but shy, so she stayed away from the front row, or was he someone who’d had a run-in with the professor and felt an ethical revulsion for him, so sat in the back of the room. Letting the character ruminate on these experiences tells me far more than a biography, no matter how long.
I also like to know why my characters do things. If one character has a hobby and practices it regularly, I want to know why. What is the character thinking while working on knitting or cooking or gardening or anything else? We are drawn to different things, and I like to hear the reasons for our passions. If someone is willing to spend hours every week on something for which he or she may or may not be paid, I want to know why. Our reasons run deeper than many of us realize, and this is where a character ruminating can generate fascinating revelations that deepen a story and even shape it.
In the quote above, Robert Frost was talking about the essential point. We care about those we know and understand. And that means more than height, marital status, number of siblings, the way we drink our coffee. It means all those things we know about our oldest and dearest friends from listening and sharing over the years. Only for writers, we have to get to all that listening and sharing in a matter of weeks. We have to let our characters talk, and then we and the readers will know them and care what happens in their stories.