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Running Mind Movies to Bring Life to Your Characters

May 18, 2011

I have always believed that there is a two-step process in developing characters for a story.

Step One is creating the existence, or purpose, of characters for the story. You decide that you need a protagonist and an antagonist, and there are supporting members of the cast that need to be developed as well.

Step Two is providing the skeletal make up for those characters, and then simply getting out of their way and seeing how they handle certain situations.

It makes little difference if you are just starting out with a plot concept (with no idea how it might end up) or if you have played the role of the architect and have developed a complete plot outline. With both approaches, developing believable characters is all about putting them in that plot and seeing what they do with it.

One of the strongest strategies that I rely heavily on to develop my characters in a specific scene is what I call “making a mind movie,” where I run a movie in my head of what happens when I place the characters into that setting.

For a work of fiction I wrote years ago called, “Alice Flows” (you can read it in its entirety here on my website), I knew that I wanted to write a story about the struggles a widower faces in carrying out a loved one’s final wishes. Beyond that, I knew little else about the story.

I decided to go “on location” and drive to a suitable setting for the story, sit (with cumbersome tape recorder in hand) in front of the place where my main character would be, and let him figure out what he was going to do with his partner’s ashes.

I arrived at exactly the time my story would be taking place, so the setting—a constant—allowed the main character (Jared) to react in real-time to the late afternoon temperatures and diminishing sunlight.

Jared and I arrived at the scene at the same time. I took a seat on the picnic bench by the water’s edge, and observed what he did. The description below of how Jared reacted to the unexpected ice is nearly identical to what I originally dictated into my recorder (it was easier for me to dictate directly from Jared’s perspective; I decided later to convert the story to third person).

Sunset nears. The rocks are glazed with ice that traps daylight’s last few hues, and the water of Little Hunting Creek that flowed through here just weeks ago now remains frozen as if caught in mid-thought. 

This is just not the way it was supposed to turn out for Alice and Jared.

“What now?” he asks.  But she does not answer. How can she?

The ice beneath his boots melts from the warmth and the weight they bear upon the time-smoothed stone, and he feels as if they have thwarted winter’s call¾if but for this moment spent in foolish desperation.

Jared and Alice never thought that death would come so soon, nor did he ever imagine that this creek might be frozen when the day arrived to carry out her wishes. Alice wanted to be returned to these waters within two sunsets of her passing; how were they to know that winter, too, would arrive so early?

“We were not yet done with autumn,” he whispers to her in his arms.

“But autumn, she seems to be done with us.”

What surprised me most about this opening scene in the story is the way the weather affected Jared’s sadness in losing his partner, Alice, when they were still relatively young. The last two lines of the excerpt above caught me off guard, and I don’t think I would have been able to hear Jared whispering these words if I were writing the story in my climate-controlled home office, on my laptop, and surrounded by piles of restaurant receipts and unpaid bills.

I did the same thing many years ago for a novel I wrote called Night Terrors, where in the climax, the protags were chasing the antags through the narrow trails on the side of a New England mountain. With tape recorder in hand, I took the very steps I envisioned my characters taking and documented the experience, through their eyes.

                   Picking up his pack and walking to the picnic bench, he noticed the summer tourists’ additions to the existing graffiti painted on the walls and carved into the support beams.  Claims that “Jeasus” was well on his way to “save us all” were accompanied by a crude carving of Christ in the top left corner of the overhang. Jeremy thought that even though the artist couldn’t spell worth a damn, he did a pretty good job of recreating a general likeness of the Son of God.  This particular Jeasus’ eyes were saddened with tears encased in long hair and a neatly trimmed  beard.  Just below the holy likeness were the words “Your fate is in the hands of your savyor Jeasus Crist” etched in crude cuts.  The cuts were fresh, but they were beginning to show the early signs of aging from frequent smoky fires and steamy meals cooked in the shelter.  It gave the graffiti an aged touch of beauty, however, that Jeremy doubted the artist ever intended.

                  He dumped his pack on the table and went for the Pepsi he had picked up earlier that morning at the Lodge.  He unzipped the side pocket, plucked a Florida orange and set it next to the pack, pushed aside a Swiss Explorer’s knife (the real hardware was stored neatly in the pack’s abdomen), some matches wrapped airtight in a Zip-loc baggy, and found his drink still cold to the touch.  Taking a seat on the table, he opened the can, toasted the colorful array of leaves that filled his view, and downed a third of the soda. 

                  Why can’t life always be this serene, he thought, putting the can to the table and sliding his palm along the edge for support.

                  Instead of feeling a hesitant sense of complacency, Jeremy felt pain, as he jammed the base of his right hand into an inch-long splinter that disappeared under his skin.

                  “Son of a bitch.”  He looked at the protruding tip, not even an eighth of an inch, and gripped it with his fingernails.  He winced in pain as he withdrew the bloody splinter from his hand.  He applied pressure with his left hand, but every time he let up, the blood would surface quickly and swell into a small pool in his palm. 

                  Last night’s visitor had also gouged the old table’s edge with deep and forceful hacks, splintering the wood into miniature spears.  The hacks were intentional, and they were made with a large, fixed blade.

                  Turning To Jeasus Crist and closing his eyes, wishing for the pain to subside, he reapplied pressure to the wound, which was taking its time in coagulating.  Mama had always said he’d die of a paper wound with his blood being so thin.

                  “Hurt yurself, did ya?”

What surprised me most was the reaction to the splinter. This character is taking the greatest risk of his life to save his family, where bravery and courage are absolutely necessary for his survival. His reaction to the splinter tells us that he is not nearly as tough as he needs to be right now, and this could cause him problems during the final encounter with the antagonist.

This final example is a reminder that, at times, it’s convenient to go to what Rob Diaz calls your “cavern of characters” and pull somebody into the scene that you created long ago. I created my trusty hiker (below) from the archives of hiking along Old Rag in the Shenandoah Mountains way back in the 1980s. This gentleman is by no means exaggerated; he is the spitting image of a hiker I ran into along my hike on Old Rag. He talked with me for a good 20 minutes on the summit, telling me tales about hiking this mountain daily for nearly 3 years (and counting). As soon as he left, I pulled out my notebook and sketched every detail I could remember. I had no idea that I would need such a character years later. When I was writing this scene with Jeremy, though, and running that mind movie, I knew immediately that my Old Rag man was just the character I needed to run into Jeremy.

                  Jeremy opened his eyes and dropped his head quickly to notice a man vaguely familiar standing in the cabin’s open frame.  He was dressed in a Colorado Hiking tee-shirt, brown work pants, and a ripped flannel shirt that was oversized, untucked, and unbuttoned.  Strapped to his waist on one side was a mini‑pack used frequently by daily hikers, just big enough to fit all of the emergency essentials.  On his other hip rested a six-inch carbon-tipped hunting knife strapped in a sheath and secured by his brown leather belt.  His Vasque lightweight hiking shoes were worn and caked with mud, and the cracks and creases that time had sown into the shoes matched the care-worn face of the middle-aged walker.  Deep, brown eyes were set in a face of wrinkles that waved as he smiled, and Jeremy thought by the stranger’s expression that he was familiar to the man as well.

                  In that split second of meeting him, Jeremy searched intently for the man’s name.  Other than his sloppy outfit and aging face, the stranger was quite average in height and weight.  No scraggly beard, no tattoos, and no other distinguishing marks to strike a memory in Jeremy’s mind.

                  “Yes,” Jeremy replied, “I’m afraid so.  I put a splinter through my hand and cut it badly.  I was hoping to stop the bleeding with a little pressure, but looks like I’m going to have to use the first aid kit after all.”  Jeremy sifted furiously through countless acquaintances, trying to place the stranger’s face, but his mind kept replaying the “NO MATCH FOUND” sign.

                  The hiker took a step forward.  “Well, hell.  Let me help you out here.  It’s the least I can do to return the favor.”

                  Jeremy looked at him curiously. 

                  Return the favor? 

I trust my characters to take charge of a scene, as long as I do my job as a writer and provide them with a realistic setting and a genuine purpose for being there. Once those two criteria are established, I get to sit back, snack a little on the popped corn, and see what happens next.

Try this: Put yourself in an every-day setting (bus stop, cafeteria, hospital waiting room) and put two contrasting characters in that scene. Record what happens next. Incorporate the sights around you, the scents, and even the sounds. Bring the scene to life by letting your characters take over. Don’t be surprised to see you have the makings of a good scene (or even story) when it’s time for one of them to get up and leave the other!

  1. May 18, 2011 1:28 am

    This sounds like a great technique. Conveniently, I’m going to the airport, mall, and the library tomorrow. I’ll have to bring some of my characters along on my errand runs and try this out.

  2. May 18, 2011 4:13 am

    Thanks, CMichaelMcGannon… 🙂 Would love to see what you come up with! Stop back and leave an excerpt or two here…we would love to see what surprises your characters might offer!

  3. May 18, 2011 11:44 am

    I enjoyed this post, and I’m all for techniques like the mind-movie.

    Perhaps I’m lazy but these days I have more of a mind-movie “trailer” writer, taking the opportunity during mundane activities, whether it’s driving or washing dishes, to imagine how my characters would sound and behave boiled down to their essence for a few seconds of screen-time.

    I guess it’s a way to see if I can see particular characters to myself, never mind the reader.

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