Voices In Your Head: Writing Vivid Characters
By Jeff Zentner
There’s a common bit of writing advice out there: Write what you know. But I adhere to a slightly different formulation of that concept: Write who fascinates you.
Every story I’ve ever written has come not from a great plot or story idea, but from the desire to inhabit the life of a certain type of person who intrigues me, and from there, to see how they would react to some trying circumstance.
I start by imagining the life of this person. I use social media when I can. For example, writing the character of Lydia in The Serpent King involved a lot of following Internet-famous fashion bloggers on Twitter and Instagram and watching how they interacted with the world and each other. From this process arises the initial voice of the character. Once I have a character’s voice and at least a provisional name, I invite them into my head for what I call “The Residency.”
The Residency is a period of several months in which the characters of my story will just live in my mind, interacting with one another and interacting with me. They tell me about themselves. They tell me about each other. What they love. What they fear. What they want. What they need to overcome. Their history. Their hopes.
For months, I have voices and people in my head. They speak to me at every quiet moment. And I just listen. I listen until I know for a fact that when I sit down to begin writing their story, I will be writing down them telling me their story and not me telling them their story. When characters tell me their story, I find out what it most important to them, which are the things most important to most real, living humans: who they love and who loves them. I think the best way to create vivid characters is to show them loving and being loved. Nothing is more relatable or universal than the experience of loving or being loved.
I take the task of creating characters very seriously. In many religious traditions, there is the story of a god or gods creating humankind. I see and reverence the process of creating characters as no less godlike. Done right, creating characters is creating human beings. Real human beings. People that readers can love and root for and cry for, just as they would real human beings. Why not? We love and root for and cry for real human beings who have lived and died and whom we will never meet. We love and root for and cry for real human beings who we only know online and may never meet.
Why should the characters in our books be any different?
About Jeff Zentner
Jeff Zentner lives in Nashville, Tennessee. He came to writing through music, starting his creative life as a guitarist and eventually becoming a songwriter. He’s released five albums and appeared on recordings with Iggy Pop, Nick Cave, Warren Ellis, Thurston Moore, Debbie Harry, Mark Lanegan, and Lydia Lunch, among others.
Now he writes novels for young adults. He became interested in writing for young adults after volunteering at the Tennessee Teen Rock Camp and Southern Girls Rock Camp. As a kid, his parents would take him to the library and drop him off, where he would read until closing time. He worked at various bookstores through high school and college.
He speaks fluent Portuguese, having lived in the Amazon region of Brazil for two years.
The Serpent King
Dill has had to wrestle with vipers his whole life—at home, as the only son of a Pentecostal minister who urges him to handle poisonous rattlesnakes, and at school, where he faces down bullies who target him for his father’s extreme faith and very public fall from grace.
He and his fellow outcast friends must try to make it through their senior year of high school without letting the small-town culture destroy their creative spirits and sense of self. Graduation will lead to new beginnings for Lydia, whose edgy fashion blog is her ticket out of their rural Tennessee town. And Travis is content where he is thanks to his obsession with an epic book series and the fangirl turning his reality into real-life fantasy.
Their diverging paths could mean the end of their friendship. But not before Dill confronts his dark legacy to attempt to find a way into the light of a future worth living.
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