A Matter of Trust [Repost]

Terri Osburn headshot Image~ 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

8 thoughts on “A Matter of Trust [Repost]”

  1. Great Advice Terri!

    I’m panicked about deadlines right now and don’t seem to get the words down on the page that I need to. After reading your post, I realize it’s because I’m so stressed that I’m not “channeling” my characters the way I usually do. *Deep Breath* Hopefully the problem will solve itself now that I am aware of it. 🙂

  2. Thanks for the advice and ways to trust your characters. Fiction does provide a rich way to delve into stories and characters. For instance, I’m not a country music fan but my characters led me to a place that plays country music and it fits them perfectly.

    I find that during the first draft I have to let the characters into my head (during treadmill walks, etc.), but by the edits, not so much. Good to hear other writers do the same.

    Glad you’re getting to The End in good shape. Thanks for reposting this blog.

  3. Great advice. I’m still “aspiring” and struggled with this a lot. I’m ueber organized in my daily life, so of course I thought I’d be a plotter (and being new I also thought that meant planning out precisely what characters would do/conversations).

    One day I woke up with scenes in my head and characters talking to each other. And I realized I FINALLY knew my characters well enough to allow them to control things. It felt right. And that meant a bit less plotting too, because I wasn’t letting them speak for themselves.

    I’m hoping that hearing the characters speak mean things are improving with my writing. It’s an unexpected intangible. Makes me wonder how many more there will be!

    1. That’s it exactly, Ali. An unexpected intangible! I’ve always been a bit of a combination plotter/pantser, which I’ve called plantsing, but it changes with each book now. You may plot one and pants the next. So long as you follow your gut and those voices, you’ll get to The End in good shape.

  4. Abigail Owen

    Love this Terri! I’ve also had times when I thought I knew my characters really well before word one, but the second I started writing they surprised me with a personality that was quite different. I recently had to go back and redo a character analysis because my heroine just did NOT want to be the librarian type I’d set her up to be. 🙂 I love the advice to listen to your characters and trust them. Hard to do sometimes and yet so true.

    1. Abigail, the hardest part is learning how to listen, because there is not “do step 1, 2, and 3 and you’ll hear them” sort of instruction sheet. You just have to keep going and keep writing and then one day you wake up and realize you can hear them. Sadly, there are no short cuts. Dang it.

  5. Love this: “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.”

    I’m 90% done with the first draft of my first manuscript. And I’m stuck. Because I thought I knew where the story had to go to tie up all the loose ends, and how to get there.

    Apparently I need to listen some more!

    Thanks for this.

    1. I’ve been there! Best thing is to just sit down and read from the beginning. Not fixing or editing anything. By the time you reach the point where you’re stuck, the characters will show exactly where to go next.

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