A Matter Of Trust

Terri Osburn 200x300

~ By Terri Osburn

Trust Your Characters!

Many moons ago, I found a blog written by Sherrilyn Kenyon, in which she talked about trusting her characters to tell the story. I was a confused newbie who had no grasp on how to get into my characters’ heads, but this idea stuck with me. Now I consider it the best bit of advice I ever read.

The truth is, the characters know their story better than you do. They are the ones living it, after all. I know the times I get stuck are the moments when I’m certain I know exactly what happens next, but the scene just won’t work. In nearly every instance, the problem is me trying to force my characters to do something they wouldn’t do.

Sometimes, it’s something simple. Very early in my writing journey, I struggled to write a scene in which the heroine arrived to work late. Three tries, and nothing was working. Then I wrote the scene with her arriving on time, and voila!

Sometimes, it’s a bigger issue. More recently, I thought I knew what the black moment would be for a book, then when I got there, it wouldn’t happen. This time I was on deadline, so I needed to solve the problem fast.

I went back and read the entire MS up to that point, then started typing, not even sure where I was going. But I trusted that the characters would take over. The scene poured onto the page, the black moment was the opposite of what I’d envisioned, and by some bit of magic, I’d foreshadowed it through the entire story.

Now, I know what you’re saying. But HOW do I do that? Hmmm… good question.

The best answer I can think of is to spend a lot of time with the characters.  Like, A LOT. The more you know about them—their past, their dreams, and their fears—the easier this will be. It’s a combination of preparation and time. I interview my characters before writing a single word, and it’s important to let them answer the questions, not answer for them.

Which makes me sound like a crazy person, but as fellow writers, I think you’ll get my meaning. Be open. Though they live in your head, they are not you. They’re individuals with ideas and experiences of their own. I don’t know what it’s like to lose my parents at a young age, but the heroine of my first Anchor Island book does. I’ve never lost a child, but the hero of my first Ardent Springs book (coming May 2015) has.

And I’m sure you haven’t experienced everything that your characters have, but if you trust them, they will help you use those experiences to tell their story. As with anything in life, if you hold on too tight, you can’t enjoy it. You stifle it. A story needs room to breathe. Characters want to be heard.

So listen. And trust them. I know this sounds like some new-age woo-woo stuff, but that’s what’s so great about writing. The woo-woo is where the magic is. Embrace the woo-woo, my friends. Trust is everything.

Terri Osburn is author of the bestselling Anchor Island series of contemporary romance. She is a 2012 Golden Heart finalist in the Contemporary Single Title category, and represented by Nalini Akolekar of Spencerhill Associates.  She lives in Virginia Beach with her teenage daughter, three frisky felines, and one hyper Yorkie-poo. 

Facebook Page > https://www.facebook.com/TerriOsburnAuthor 

Twitter > https://twitter.com/TerriOsburn

17 thoughts on “A Matter Of Trust”

  1. THanks for reminding me to trust my characters, Terri. It’s just so true. Just let your hands take over and the characters will say and do things that may surprise and shock you, but it works perfectly.

  2. Terrific post, Terri! It always amazes me what my characters tell me. And how they refuse to tell me anything when I’m pushing them too hard. Or holding too tight 🙂 I really should write the lessons from this post down and put in front of me when I’m writing, because I routinely forget!

  3. Wine and/or chocolate is always an option! And 9 times out of 10, if a scene simply refuses to come together, it’s because it’s the wrong scene or I’m going about it the wrong way. Those ones are harder to turn around than some others. Hope the scene comes along, Lauren.

    Lots of woo-woo going around! Embrace it. Believe in it. And it doesn’t hurt to have a little belief in yourself either. Once you stop saying, “I’m a hack and I can’t do this” it’s amazing how quickly the woo-woo returns. 🙂

  4. Great advice, Terri! I think I needed to hear this today (as I’m struggling with a particular scene where I can’t “hear” the dialogue). I like Kay’s suggestion of giving them wine — maybe that’ll loosen everyone up. (Or just me? Whatever.)

  5. I not only embrace the woo-woo (LOVE this phrase, and yes I’m stealing it), I take it to dinner. Isn’t it a bizarre and wonderful moment when the woo-woo is simply THERE and you are a stenographer? And yet, I also find myself stuffing a scene down my characters’ throats, and I imagine later (after I’ve embraced said woo-woo), my characters were smiling sweetly at me and giving each other looks as if to say, “There she goes again. Let’s wait here until she comes back for us.”
    So thank you for this reminder!

  6. It’s when the characters have hit the MUTE button that I hit my head on my desk. They’re moving, the scene is flowing, but the words have gone *poof* 🙂 Embrace the Woo-Woo. I will remember to feed them that line so they’ll chatter.

  7. I think this may be why I’m not a fast writer, Terri–my characters don’t tell me the story fast enough (maybe I should offer them chocolate? wine?). But they do sneak up on me and give me a clue now and then, and they definitely refuse to do things just because I tell them to. Good thoughts.

  8. I don’t think I could write if I didn’t allow my characters to take over and tell the story. I read On Writing by Stephen King and he suggests the same thing. That book gave me the confidence to just let go and let the story happen. I truly believe that the story is buried in us, from beginning to end and we just have to step aside and let it out. I remember reading that Mozart said that whatever he wrote came to him all at once, the entire piece swirling around him from beginning to end all at once. He just had to take the time to write it all down!

    1. Kathleen, if only we could write it down as fast as it comes! I read that Stephen King book earlier this year. Though I can’t read his books (I’m a fraidy cat), I would certainly love to sit down for a meal with him. He just sounds like such a great person.

  9. Hellion,

    You’re definitely holding on way too tight. And I don’t blame your characters for clamming up if you keep telling them their ideas are stupid. lol How about going with it, just once, and see what happens?

    And now I want to make a shirt that says Embrace the Woo-Woo. I might have to do that.

  10. You crack me up with your Woo-Woo slogan, Terri. *LOL* I swear you should wear that as a t-shirt or pin at one of the conferences.

    I think I’ve lost my track of trusting my characters. I know the story is theirs to solve, but sometimes I don’t think they’re solving it the way I thought it should be solved…whatever nebulous way I think is solving that. Because I really don’t know either, but I know my character’s idea is stupid. Yeah, see, I’m having problems.

  11. I agree with you. The woo-woo has it, hands down! : )
    Actually, I do think knowing your characters value system is key. If you’re writing knowing who she is and how she would react to even the most inconsequential things, then somehow you foreshadow (without knowing it) what those key turning points will be, and especially how she handles the black moment.

  12. Embrace the woo-woo!! Okay, I’ll be at my writing desk in a bit and will embrace the concept of letting my characters lead the way. Ah, wonder if it works for the synopsis??
    Great blog, Terri. I do understand that moment when the characters lead the way. My subconscious has been feeding information all the time. I just have to listen and trust my instincts.
    Thanks for reminding me!

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