Thursday, March 24, 2011

Writing More Vivid Characters--Borrow a Technique from Alec Guiness

This week, I'm going to share a technique I teach in my workshops on writing vivid characters.  If you're interested in learning more, you're welcome to join me on Monday, March 28, 1:30-4:30 p.m., at the Hudson Valley Writers' Center in Sleepy Hollow, NY (Westchester county near NYC), for an afternoon workshop on writing strong characters.  The cost is $60 and you can register by calling the Writers' Center at 914-332-5953.

I was struggling with dilemma in my second novel when
I came upon a great technique for raising the stakes. I often make collages of difficult characters, because my right brain can help me get to know them if I use images.

One of the images in my collage for my rather bland character, Kate, was a photo a woman wearing a wedding dress and running alone through a mock doorway in an empty field. The image was a strange choice but it grabbed me. I didn’t know what it was telling me about Kate, but it did show she was indeed in conflict. I studied the collage for a few days, trying to figure out Kate’s big problem.

Then I came across an article written by legendary New York acting teacher, Uta Hagen. Hagen is a proponent of the Stanislavsky method and coach to generations of successful actors such as Geraldine Page, Jason Robards, Jr., and Matthew Broderick. Actors under her tutelage get into a character’s longings and desires via two different doorways. First they consider the external person; they search out a character’s motives by looking at the external aspects of that character’s life. The actor might pay attention to the character’s shoes, as does Alec Guinness. Second, they study the internal thoughts and feelings of the person they’ll be playing. They might take the character to a therapist (as Sir Laurence Olivier liked to do).

So I made a list of possible questions I could ask Kate, using this two-part approach. As I imagined Kate answering my therapist questions, I learned she was on the run (the running woman) from her marriage (the wedding dress). This led to good questions: What was keeping Kate bound to her current life? Why did she want to run away from her husband?

I looked at the actions Kate takes throughout the book, and I saw a problem immediately. Kate only thought about how unhappy she was. I didn’t have her do anything about it. This made her character flat. I brainstormed ways to increase Kate’s external dilemma. A good idea came: What if she wasn’t able to escape? What if she had an illness that kept her bound to her unhappy marriage?

As I added these “islands” to Acts 1 and 2, Kate became a much stronger character. Moreover, the book deepened as her dilemmas deepened. As if floodgates had opened, I suddenly had enough material to write many more scenes.

The image of the running woman became my compass to keep conflict in Kate’s story, and I used the external/internal dilemma questions each time she seemed to get too safe. Most of us know that when a person faces danger or conflict, we see what that person is made of. High stakes bring out hidden needs, as well as hidden strengths.

As I said before, dilemma reveals if a person will fight or run or freeze.

Even if you’re writing nonfiction, you will need to consider dilemma. Every genre of book delivers a question to be answered, a quest to be followed, a wish to be fulfilled. Growth comes whenever we face the unknown and take a risk, even if it’s not the life-threatening risk of hunting down clues in a mystery. Your book must present the challenge of change, the fulfillment of new opinions, new skills, new understandings.

Your Weekly Writing Exercise
1. Choose a character in your book who feels distant, too safe, even bland. Take a look at these two lists of questions.
External Research Questions
What do you like or dislike about your looks?
How do you feel about your age?
What five things are in your refrigerator?
What are your favorite shoes? Why?
What is your least favorite article of clothing?
What sort of work do you do? How do you feel about it?
What’s a favorite possession that you’d never let go of?
What’s your favorite music? When do you listen to it?

Internal Research Questions
Who or what in your life first broke your heart?
What do people who know you think of you?
What or whom would you eliminate from your life?
What do you wish never happened to you?
What’s a secret you hide?
What is so painful you can’t let it go?
What makes you so happy you can hardly bear it?

2. Pick three questions from each list. Write down how the character might answer these questions. If you are writing about someone real, research the answers so they are accurate and true to life.

3. Do any of the answers give you a new insight on possible (and as yet unrevealed) conflict? Maybe you are suddenly aware of a desire or longing that person hasn’t mentioned before.

4. Freewrite for twenty minutes about how this new understanding could increase the conflict in that person’s story.

Look for answers that contradict each other: this is gold for writing dilemma. For instance, if one of your characters says he has no pain in his life, no one who ever broke his heart, but in the same breath talks about a woman who once told him he wasn’t very smart, go deeper. Two answers that challenge each other hint at something unresolved.

Excerpted from Your Book Starts Here: Create, Craft, and Sell Your First Novel, Memoir, or Nonfiction Book, available now on


  1. What wonderful, detailed advise!

    I've got a character that shallow and bland. I've been struggling to make him real.

    With this technique, I have no doubt I'll have his inner conflict exposed fully by sundown.

    Oh wait, the sun's been down for hours...

  2. Thanks for the great post! I love the idea of taking a character to a therapist. And your advice about incorporating dilemma is well explained. I'll have to give it a try. Thanks!

  3. So glad it helped, M.E. Thanks for visiting the blog!

  4. Thanks for your comment, Newbie, and hope the exercise helps your blah character!

  5. I have a very detailed character sketch sheet I use for my MCs and other major characters that allows me to discover everything I need to know. At least, most everything, but sometimes I still get stuck because a character is refusing to move forward. This is when I know I need to interview the character and I love these therapy questions. Thank you for sharing!

  6. Thanks, Kristie! Glad it was helpful. I hope it helps "unstuck" your more reluctant characters.

  7. I'm going to try it. I'm only thirteen, and I want to be an Author when I grow up. This will help me lots, thanks! :)