Character Craft and Writing in Reverse
I don’t plot characters. There – I admit it.
I totally roll on gut instinct when I write for my cast. That said, I could never actually write them at all if I didn’t know two things:
- Who they were born as (personality, emotion, natural abilities, etc).
- How they evolved as a result of their environment.
Additionally, I write in reverse, which is, well – weird. BUT, if your aim as a writer is to build characters that walk off the page and become real to the reader, then writing in reverse is a powerful tool.
But to write in reverse, you MUST know your characters on a level that makes them real in your mind. You must know your characters BEFORE the story is born (ideally). I know – you’re like, “What the freak is Conway rambling about?”
Here’s the thing: to make the reactions and decisions of characters believable, you need to know them as friends before you torture the crap out of them.
Still confused? Try this: Picture your best friend. You’ve known this person for a long time. You know how they move, his or her tells and ticks, the slang they use, their personality, their likes and dislikes, etc. You can picture this person in your mind, talking to you. You can literally HEAR their voice.
Now, in your mind, place that person in a ridiculous situation, such as . . . an alien space ship lands in their backyard. What they would say? Do? Can you see them looking out their window and hear what they are saying on the phone to you as they realize ET has hunkered down in the backyard? If you know this person really well, you can totally paint the entire scene in your head, right down to their words and reactions, because you know their CHARACTER. You don’t even need to think about it – you just KNOW.
The same applies to fictional characters. If you don’t know your character as well as your BFF, then you’re screwed. You’ll end up sitting at your desk, trying to decide how your character will react to the aliens. But here’s the thing – in reality, if your characters were real people, you’d have no control over their reactions, thus you should have no control over your fictional character. If you write for characters who are entirely real to you, then that scene becomes instinctive. You can instantly slip into the skin of that character and, without thinking, write the scene.
People ask me, “How the hell do you write 5,000 to 10,000 words a day?” and it’s simple: I know the characters. I know them so well, that I HEAR them and each one sounds different. I see them move as if on film. I can drop them into another book or movie and know entirely what they would say or do without thinking, as if their words were mine.
Real characters tell the writer how the story will unfold, not the other way around. Real characters hijack the story and kick the writer to the curb.
When I write, I want to be invisible to the reader. I want the reader so lost in my world, that they can’t stop thinking about the book even when they are at work, in the shower, walking to the store, etc. I want the reader so desperate for the next page that they are sneaking in reading time when they shouldn’t. I want the reader to BELIEVE, entirely, that the characters are real.
I remember when I was trying to find an audiobook narrator for my character, Eila Walker, and I was getting tons of auditions. I’d send them on to ten women who knew the series really well, and the frightening thing was, they always chose the SAME audition. ALL OF THEM. And yet Eila had never actually spoken a word out loud. Eila lived in their heads ONLY, and yet they heard her the same, every time.
That’s our goal as writers – to mold characters who could live outside the world you create for them. And remember, great characters dictate the story, no matter how wild or fantastic their realm. We are biographers of the impossible and the fake. We turn lies into truths in the eyes of the reader.
So how does knowing a character play into Writing in Reverse? The only way to plot a story, when a character is vibrantly REAL, is to know how you want them to react in a given scene, and then go backwards in order to figure out what must happen in the story to get them to react THAT WAY.
I am teaching Writing in Reverse at a major writer’s conference this spring and I’m looking forward to hanging with so many wonderful writers. If you are taking my class (and happen to be reading this) then I suggest letting your characters run loose in your mind WITHOUT writing them. Let them free to mess around in your imagination – change their age, develop their history, hone their emotions. You’ll quickly find that once your characters are real, writing is pretty damn easy.
In celebration of TRUE NORTH, I invited fans of the series to ask the characters anything they wanted via social media. I found the experience to be a great test of how well I knew Eila and her crew, and I highly recommend trying it out on your own characters as a way to test yourself.
Dear Ana: Did you ever think that sharing your story would be an inspiration?
ANA: “Honestly? I had no intention of revealing my story. In fact, my basic plan was simple: fly under the radar until I was eighteen and could move out. Was it cowardly? I don’t think so. I mean, I had a plan for leaving, but just not really leaving. I’d never totally leave my dad behind. At least, that’s what I’d always planned – a “fix him from afar” type of deal. And I guess that part of me, the little girl part, believed that something was seriously wrong with ME because, hell – if somebody’s daughter couldn’t get them sober, who the heck could, right?
I totally believed that I could be his tipping point for getting sober, but now I know better. And though it’s hard for me to admit, I know that before he died, he no longer saw me at all. He saw through me that last summer he was alive, and I think that’s what drove me to work even harder to try to fix him. I couldn’t handle being this ghost that he was slowly forgetting. Ignoring. That hurt in a way his fists never could. And when your idea of love was this struggle to be noticed, at all, sometimes you end up shaving yourself away, bit-by-bit. Sometimes the hits don’t impact you anymore, because the violence becomes a vaccine for the pain. It’s messed up – I know that now. I didn’t back then.
When I met Kian, I really didn’t give a crap about him, because my entire life revolved around getting my father to NOTICE me enough that he’d stay sober. But Kian? I didn’t have to work for his love. I didn’t have to do anything, really, for him to notice me. He saw me. All of me. I sacrificed nothing for his love. He became this balm that slowly healed all those wounds that no one could ever see – the ones that left scabs all over my heart and my soul.
That’s real love. Sometimes it isn’t perfect, and lord knows we can argue, but it’s never in a selfish manner. We fight with each other, because we fight for each other. That’s love. I know that now. And if what I learned – the crap that I lived through – helps someone else, then I guess sharing my story was worth it.”
Dear Raef: Did you ever think you would be able to love after being turned?
RAEF: “No, but not for the reasons you’d think. That first year after I was turned, violence was this thrill. The hunt was just as fabulous as kill. Kian will tell you that our human side is a myth, or rather – he used to say that. When I knew him before Ana, but after Elizabeth’s death, he was just as irritating, but a lot colder towards life. Killing was systematic with him, whereas with me – I don’t know. I guess I liked that act of killing, far more than Kian.
After Elizabeth died though, something inside me cracked. Maybe it was some sense of guilt breaking through, I don’t know. But it was only after I watched her die that I realized, fully, that being with someone was never going to be in the cards for me. Love was pointless. No one could see past the killer that I was. That I am.
So I ignored that which I didn’t have, and focused on moving through life the best I could. But then I got tangled into Eila’s life. The first time I saw her, I thought she looked a lot like Elizabeth. And when she reacted so strongly to me when we were in class, I knew. I just KNEW that E was from Elizabeth’s bloodline. But being with Eila – try to watch her back and keep her safe – caused all those things that my life lacked, to slip back into my daily routine.
So no – I didn’t think love was in the cards for me, but Eila didn’t just give me back my heart. She didn’t just love both the man and the monster. She also gave me back my humanity and that is like giving a dead man the kiss of life. And learning to love is a forever process. Eila and I . . . we learn everyday.”
Dear Rillin: What is one of your biggest regrets?
RILLIN: “I’m not sure one can ever define a single regret. If I lived in regrets, I would’ve attempted suicide as a Trial back in the empire days. But yes, I have regrets. Many of them. But all those memories of the things I wish I’d done differently, I collect. I hoard them – turn them into an armor that keeps me alive. Keeps me moving forward, against the avalanche of time and hate. Now that I am in service to Eila Walker, I have found that those regrets aren’t quite so heavy anymore. Focus, purpose, and a chance to change the fate of Elizabeth’s descendant make regrets seem petty. Pointless. Except for one: I should’ve never left Elizabeth in the woods for Christian to find. For Christian to love.”