Baiting Your Characters

Sometimes while writing, I feel like I’m walking through a derelict building. There are paper scraps and broken furniture all over the floor, buried under soot and ashes. Some of the windows are boarded up, and others hang open like slack-jawed monsters with broken glass teeth. Holes in the roof let sunlight through, but only in places. Sometimes I know exactly what I’m looking at. Other times all I can make out are footsteps and rustling.

It’s lovely when characters run up to you out of the debris. It’s so easy. They leap out, grab your wrist and yank you down to tell you what they know. Other times, they peer out, shyly, and you have to pick your way over to them. Other times — and this is the worst — you can hear them skittering through the shadows, calling out to you, but they never step forward into the light. You tell them to come out, but they don’t.

On the page, they stand in the crowd — the backdrop of your story — but don’t assert themselves enough to move the plot along. There’s got to be a way to entice them out.

Easy. Play games with them.

Word association. Twenty questions. Find out what they’re excited about, and leave it in a sunbeam for them to find.

Games are a way to translate left-brain logical progression with right-brain intuition. Take an established structure, like the hero’s journey, and bait your semi-visible character out with it. Coax out the facets even they didn’t know they had. Drop the questions in their path like slices of cake.

Where are you from?

Who raised you?

What are you afraid of?

What do you want to accomplish, and what would it take to distract you? To stop you?

This is especially useful with minor characters.

Wander around for a while, baiting them. Let them tell you. You’ll be surprised what they show you about themselves.

Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.”
― Ray Bradbury

You don’t really understand an antagonist until you understand why he’s a protagonist in his own version of the world.”
― John Rogers

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7 thoughts on “Baiting Your Characters

  1. www.laurensapala.com

    I love this image of the derelict building. I also love the idea of baiting characters with questions. It’s interesting that you say this works well with minor characters, I’ve only asked my main characters questions. I’m going to start using it with those players that don’t very much stage time.

    Reply
  2. margitsage

    I love the quotes at the end. I have a standard list of questions I ask my characters. It’s longer for MC’s and shorter for more minor characters.

    Reply
  3. Andrew Toynbee

    When I’m writing, I feel more like I am walking through a warehouse that is stuffed with crates and boxes. Every one contains ideas and possibilities (perhaps even a cat and a poison pellet!) that might eventually contribute to the completed story. As I open each box and note down / discard what lies within, the empty warehouse begins to fill and the story starts to form. It’s a time that’s both exciting and nerve-racking.

    Reply
  4. Pingback: Friday Link Pack | I make stories.

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