How To Strengthen Characters Using First Person Journaling
“God save us from vague generalizations!” These words from Anton Chekhov speak to the enemy of great art: a lack of specificity. When we think of great writers, we often think what makes them great is the ability to turn a general concept into something distinct. You can’t read Stephen King without being struck by his descriptions and the voices of his characters. Take this short excerpt from The Stand:
“He favored cowboy boots with pointed toes, wide leather garrison belts that he was constantly hitching up because his belly was considerably bigger than his butt…” (pg.249).
King could have just said, “his ill-fitting pants.” But he didn’t. He narrowed his focus to a microscopic level of specificity. He does the same thing with the uniqueness of his character’s voices. This reaction to the character described above happens a few sentences later:
“…she always felt uncomfortable and a little disgusted, as if she sensed by low-grade telepathy that almost every thought Harold had was coated in slime” (pg.249).
When reading King, I frequently find myself wondering how he manages to write such things page after page. Then I find myself trying to figure out how to strengthen characters to his extraordinary level. First-person journaling (stolen from my acting craft tool kit) has helped me tremendously in my effort to scoot away from the general and closer to the specific. It is one of the ways to strengthen your characters that I’ve found most helpful.
I have to give a shoutout to my acting coach Wolfgang Bodison at Playhouse West for introducing me to this exercise. As we would start work on a new role, Wolf would have us begin journaling from the first-person perspective of our characters. We could journal about anything and everything: past life events, the happenings of the scene we were doing, and free association writing. Depending on what part of character development you’re working on, I’d suggest going about this in two different ways.
Option One: Discover Your Character
If you’re having a difficult time getting into your character’s head or if you’re just starting out with this character, I’d start with free association writing. Put on some music your character would listen to, get a journal, and begin writing like it’s your character’s diary. Don’t judge anything that wants to live on the page. Start writing whatever comes to mind first, and don’t worry about where you start and where you finish. This should be a fun excavation of your character’s thoughts, feelings, and voice.
Take this as far as possible. Is your character the existential type? Turn your lights down, light some candles, and put on some Russian classical music. Are they a knight off to save the world? Pour a mug of “ale,” pretend you’re in a tavern, and go for it. You don’t even necessarily have to use words or a diary format. You can draw, make a character’s to-do list for the day, or really anything. Whatever you feel the impulse to do, do it. Doing discovery work is how to strengthen character’s voices and make their world views unique.
Option Two: Establish Formative Life Events
The second way you can use this tool is for when you’re further along in your character development. Usually when we write, we have a general idea of what has happened to our character in the past. Most of us could make a bulleted list of our character’s major life events that have shaped how they begin the story.
But oftentimes, we find ourselves writing about situations we have never experienced ourselves. We can do all the research in the world and have an intellectual understanding of how certain events impact people, but it’s not the same as knowing it viscerally. And the visceral expression of our characters is what we want.
If you want a more exact understanding of your character’s state of mind and how it’s shaped them in the present, then first personal journaling about specific formative events will help you out. For this one, you’re going to write journal entries (like it’s your characters diary) directly following these major life events.
Before you put pen to paper, live the event out in your mind as specifically as possible. Do this from the character’s point of view. You are your character now. Imagine everything that happened in as much detail as you can muster. Really try to see it all in your imagination. Hear the words people say, see the expressions on their faces, smell the environment, etc. If this starts to give you feels, that’s a good sign!
Next, record the events in your journal entry with as many details as possible. Write down everything your character can remember from the event. After you’ve done that, start journaling (still in the first person of your character) about how the events made you feel.
Once you’ve done this, you’ll have an incredibly detailed and specific understanding about what happened to your character, how it made them feel at the time, and what their reflection on the event looked like afterward. When you get to an important scene in your book where the character speaks about the event, you’ll have all this journaling to reference when you’re trying to come up with the right words.
Example as if I were exploring the story from The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones where Jace tells Clary about his father breaking his bird’s neck:
“…he handed the bird back to me and walked away. It lay limp in my hand, still warm. I thought for a moment about removing its hood, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. It scared me. I didn’t want to see its face. It made me want to cry, but I didn’t…”
Remember this is an exploration and none of it has to be perfect. Write down whatever comes to mind and don’t judge it. If you don’t like what you come up with the first time, you can always do it again. Throw out what you hate, and mine the gold nuggets.
First person journaling gets your mind working creatively and strengthens your characters. You’ll find yourself coming up with more specific and unique descriptions and expressions of voice seemingly out of nowhere, but it will be because you put in the work digging a deep well to draw from.
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