This week I'm talking about the single most useful exercise I've ever done to get closer to my characters. I've tried it all- from interviewing them, to "taking" them with me when I'm driving long distances, to extensive answering of questions about their life.
As I mentioned last week, though, I really feel that the only way to get to know your characters better is to write about them. Lots. Nothing is wasted- if it helps you get to know your character better, then it contributes to the story, even if it doesn't appear in the final product.
The same benefit applies to this exercise: stream of consciousness writing.
I first happened across stream of consciousness in an exercise run by the marvellous Jo Bourne at CompuServe. As a matter of fact, I was brand spanking new to the place, lured there by a mention of it in Diana Gabaldon's acknowledgements. I signed up, found the writers exercises folder, read the December exercise, and did it right there and then- and posted it, too, before I could think twice. If (no, let's say when) I get published, it will be in large part thanks to the support I received when I posted that exercise.
I was writing in Meredith's point of view, and she was just what Jen talked about in her excellent post last week- far, far too nice. I didn't like her one bit. Here's a paragraph of the exercise in which prose is mixed with what I thought was all right SOC. And yes, I did think I was very clever writing the actual story in present tense. Briefly.
Jared is in the water, swimming broad circles, splashing- I turn back and find him watching at me with those curious blue eyes. “Come in,” he calls, “the water’s fine.” I find my hands clutching automatically around my skirt- I can’t do it, I just can’t. There are things down there, I know, because Jared told me about them, the gilgies, those little lobsters with the big claws. There are things out here as well, of course… “Come on,” he’s saying, “there’s nothing to worry about. I’ll look after you.” His arms are big, quite bulging with strength as he sweeps them back and forth through the molten blue-green; in fact his whole body is strong, except for that one leg that doesn’t exist any more. I wonder idly where it went, that part of him? What do they do with your leg when they chop it off? It must still be in France somewhere, I suppose. Maybe they have a graveyard just for legs.
I show you my early writing endeavours because they illustrate an important point- as writers, a lot of us are also control freaks. We want things just so. But this is the antithesis of true stream of consciousness writing. True SOC is about letting is all hang out. No punctuation. No capital letters. No pausing. Just writing, writing, writing, without thinking. Opening the valve between your creative brain and your fingertips without fear or self-censure.
You may be able to see from my December 2006 exercise that I couldn't convince myself to let go like that. I felt the need to keep control.
And in reality, that meant I didn't trust my character, and I didn't understand her. I wasn't hearing her voice- I was hearing my own inner voice, "playing" at being somebody else.
I'll say that again, because it's super important:
What you really want on the page is your character's voice, not your own inner voice wearing a costume.
With a lot of practice, I got better at stream of consciousness. I did a lot of it. The more I wrote, the more I got to know my characters.
So, here's the principle:
To do a stream of consciousness exercise, sit down in front of your piece of paper or your keyboard. Take a deep breath, relax, block out everything else. Decide which character you'll be inhabiting and where they are at that point in time. And then it's as simple as slipping inside *their* head for a visit (not the other way around). Put yourself in their shoes; let yourself see the world through their eyes. Don't let your own thoughts, especially your self-critical inner editor, intrude.
And just write.
Write without punctuation, without pausing, until you run out of steam. You're recording your character's innermost thoughts- how they feel about their particular situation at that particular time. We all have an inner monologue (some deny it, like my husband, but I think perhaps it's just a little quieter for him).
Here's an SOC example- eating breakfast, just for illustration.
Late again five minutes what am I going to eat no time for toast cereal only weetbix left in the cupboard hate those things like eating shredded cardboard fine i'll have weetbix hope there's some milk left forgot to get more yesterday
That's what I was thinking this morning. Needless to say I wouldn't make a good story character, since my actual life is so very mundane. Ha. But even in that small snip you could learn a few things about me- I'm often late; I may not have the healthiest of eating habits, since I don't love shredded wheat biscuits; and I'm somewhat harried since I'm always forgetting to buy milk. These are small tidbits that, if I were your character, would weave a richer background for your story. They might not be directly important in the long run, but that's where you come in- deciding what's relevant to the story and what's not.
Let's look at some of my actual stream of consciousness for Between the Lines. I tend to start each scene I'm writing in SOC, and after a few paragraphs I fall into normal prose writing. Occasionally I'll write the whole scene in SOC and go back later to "convert" it to prose. My SOC now *does* contain a little punctuation and paragraph breaks but it always flows without thought or pause. A lot of people find it easier to write longhand than type, but I've learned to let my fingers fly over the keys without it taking me out of the zone.
In this scene, Bill, who has refused to go away and fight in World War I, is about to learn that his best friend Tom has been killed in action. SOC is written, by the immediate nature of the thoughts, in first person present tense.
I’m heading for the post office today when I see him standing on the road outside, staring at nothing. There’s a piece of paper in his hand he could be a statue just standing like that the wind is blowing his clothes but otherwise it’s like he’s made from stone. Tom’s dad. Old Cyril Barnes.
Right away there’s a sinking feeling running down through me and I stop walking I turn around it’s not too late to get back on the horse and go home and I won’t know a thing but it’s too late something’s up something’s happened and if I go home now it’ll kill me wondering
I turn back and he’s still there the paper slips out of his fingers and drifts to the ground like a leaf but he just keeps staring I take a few more steps, slow, and a few more, and then I’m up next to him
Mr Barnes? He doesn’t look up I wonder if it’s possible for someone to die standing up that’s how he looks grey in the face and stiff
I bend down and pick up the paper there’s black around the outside and the paper is smudged with red dirt I don’t want to read it I can’t the thought makes my throat prickle please don’t let it be so please maybe they’ve given him a medal maybe he’s been mentioned in despatches
My fingers are trembling I turn it over the words are bare only two lines down the middle of the telegram Regret to inform it begins I think I’m going to faint the whole world is spinning the only thing staying in one place is the paper Your son- aw, Christ, I can’t do this I can’t even breathe there’s only one more line it’s like reading the newspaper just words I tell myself
Regret to inform your son Pte Thomas Barnes 11Bn…
Maybe it’s Tom Barnes from Victoria, maybe they’ve got the wrong man?
Has been confirmed killed in action this 15th May inst. In Turkey
The paper hits the floor again with a light little swish just words, just words, just words What was that rhyme Kit used to chant when I ran crying to her over Len and his mates? Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me
Oh, but they hurt now and look at old Barnes Jesus there are tears coming down his cheeks I grab his arm as much to stop myself falling over as him and finally he looks at me and I’ve never seen anything like it in another man’s eyes we connect and all his grief and all of mine just pours out there in the street and the next thing we’re hanging onto each other and he’s bawling in my ear only I’m too numb to bawl myself I just feel enclosed in my own little bubble like nothing else in the whole world exists and Tom is dead
Tom is dead
And his mother doesn’t know, yet, and here’s Cyril in pieces on Main Street and what are the two of them going to do? It’s all I can do to lead him back down the street, trying to put one foot in front of the other, and help him get up in the saddle. I walk next to Shadow all the way up to the Barnes farm, and when we get there Helen is waiting out on the porch and Cyril slides off the saddle like a sack of rocks and goes stumbling towards her with his hat in his hands, and she starts to scream.
To be honest, I've yet to convert that into "prose" version because I like it (for now) as it is. Every time I read it I still feel the power of those thoughts and I feel a crazily strong connection to my character.
In the future, when I *do* convert it, the first couple of paragraphs, for example, will look something like this:
It was midday by the time he sauntered into town, taking it nice and easy to enjoy the first breath of winter. He rode the whole way half-dreaming about her, and once in a while he caught himself grinning like a loon, glad there was no-one around to see.
Outside the Commercial, he slipped out of the saddle and hooked the reins a couple of times around the [thing you tie horses to] [please note use of square brackets :P]. The wind ripping up [Main] Street hit him in a flurry of rain-scented coolness, and he tugged his collar up higher and scuffed at the dry packed dirt of the road. Not long now and the drought would break. The whole year depended on how much water fell from the sky in the next couple of weeks. Hopefully they'd have a bumper crop ready for the boys to harvest when they all came home at the end of the year.
Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted a figure standing across the road at the door of the post office.
He squinted. Old Cyril Barnes. It was definitely him, with his ramrod straight back, all of five feet high in his boots. He was standing there still as a statue, the tails of his coat flapping in the breeze like a pack of swallows, a bright piece of paper fluttering in his hand.
As Bill watched, the piece of paper slid out of the man's fingers and floated back and forth until it hit the ground.
All of a sudden the temperature took a slide.
No. No, it couldn't be.
As you can see, things get mixed up and moved around; details get added and removed. The SOC isn't a blueprint for what you're writing; it's an inspiration for understanding your character's feelings. And you can do it and redo it as many times as you need to until you're happy- there's no law saying you have to nail it first time, or ever for that matter.
If you don't know where to start, I recommend doing a few "diary" entries for your character that cover an important period of your story. That's how I started to really understand Bill in the first place.
Give it a shot and see what happens when you inhabit someone else's mind completely for a little while. You might just be surprised to see what comes out, and I guarantee you'll know your character better at the end of it.