In past articles, I’ve talked about the importance of having a relationship with your character as well as the way to destroy a hard-earned connection to your creations. In this article, I want to focus on what you can do as an Author to establish this relationship with your characters. Just like with real people, you can’t dictate a successful relationship, but you can do things to improve or help cultivate one… just as you can do things that will help tear one apart.
Thought 1: Be Patient
As I noted before, relationships rarely happen overnight — be it with real people or with your characters. As an Author, you have to be patient and long-suffering, often to the point of thinking you’re NEVER going to get a response from your creations. But just like with real people, characters will pick a place and time of their own to open up and entrust you with new information. This may come after weeks of writing, roleplaying and developing… or in the case of my character, in months and years.
Some of my best characters have developed, quite slowly, over the span of numerous years. My oldest character will have been a part of my life for over 15 years… and he’s certainly not the same as the first concept pieces that I sketched back when I was younger.
Thought 2: Be Flexible
As time passes, you will also change alongside of your character… which means your relationship will alter, too. Just like with real people, you have to be flexible to these changes. New characters will be created — some of which may seem more solid and interesting than the old, simply because you gain more experience in character design and development the more that you do it. But that doesn’t mean that the old characters aren’t as good or should be discarded!
I use to freak out when I discovered that my main character, Ben, was often the most difficult and distant character to feel and understand. I had it in my head that if he wasn’t feeding me a direct dialogue whenever I attempted to write for him, that it meant I had fallen out of touch with him and gone through a relationship lapse. Over time, I’ve found that’s not always the case…
Though this character still means a lot to me, Ben tends to be more of a casual character relationship as time has passed. He’s resolved a number of issues in his life and overcome a lot of the initial struggles that I designed for him long ago. Due to this, he’s taken on a different roll in my world, one that spends less time in the spotlight and fighting with internal struggles… and more of a supporting role for the newer cast that find themselves in a position to benefit from his experience and wisdom.
As an Author, I had to accept that this was his chosen path of development… and learn to back off and let the change happen. I became more content when I realized that his relationship has grown to a point where we don’t need to have that constant back and forth to be reassured Author and creation are still in tune. I know that whenever I need to write for him, Ben will respond in his own unique way and the emotional connection that I need will come.
Thought 3: Be Open
When characters share their life story events, it will be on their own terms. This can happen in the normal course of writing, but just as often when you’re not expecting it. I find a lot of my character revelations come when I’m doing mindless things like driving, showering or washing dishes.
The random information a character will offer you may be an important scene in their life. It may be an emotion or personality trait that you didn’t know existed. A new quirk that you just ran across. Or something completely random and silly. But always be open to it even if it may not seem ground-breaking… because they are entrusting you with just a little bit more about themselves. It’s one more shade of personality that helps you to understand them. One more thing that makes them more real.
And if you’re open to even the most trivial seeming aspects, then you’ll find that you’ll slowly be trusted to learn more.
Thought 4: Be Rested
It should go without saying that if you’re struggling with a bout of creative burnout, it’s not very likely that your character is going to be sharing much with you. You’re frustrated. You’re tired. You’re uninspired. You think your work is a piece of junk. And that mindset isn’t going to foster connections beyond anger and angst to offer you anything deep and creative.
Don’t ever force things on your character when you’re dragging and burned out. It’s the worst possible time for both yourself and your creations and you’ll run the risk of doing things that could destroy a hard-earned relationship. It’s far better to step away from things and do something else for a while… something that will refill the dried-up well of inspiration. Don’t let a passing block or burnout tear down everything you’ve built.
Thought 5: Be Gentle
R-E-S-P-E-C-T… Okay. Now I’m quoting old songs. But it’s such an important thing in any relationship, even with your own creations. When you start overstepping your proper boundaries, as Authors can do, you begin to dissolve some of the trust that a character has in you.
A certain amount of struggle and strife is important to help a character grow and develop. But there comes a point where an Author has obviously lost all respect for their character’s rights as a living being. They abuse. They demean. They completely humiliate all because they simply can get away with it. Afterall, it’s their character, right?
Eventually, the readers will stop responding with sympathy… and maybe even lose interest in your story and characters all together. It becomes tiresome when there’s nothing but abuse after abuse after abuse in a character’s life. There is such a thing as too much. Such a thing as breaking a character’s spirit down. At that point, the character has become a plot device for malicious treatment more than a real character.
At that point, you have no relationship left.
Be gentle… listen to your character’s hopes, wishes and dreams. Don’t grant them everything, of course. Don’t save them from every darkness in the world, either. Allow them to struggle and grow, but know when enough is enough. Each character will have a different threshold of this for you to discover. Don’t be afraid to test it, but recognize the signs of when it’s time to give them a break.