Hello, My Name Is...: Using Journal-Writing for Character Development
Hello, My Name Is…: Using Journal-Writing for Character Development
By Sara Letourneau
Main characters can’t be names floating on a page or perfectly rounded people who never evolve. They have to be flawed, challenged, motivated. They have to change and enforce change as a result of the story. That’s one of the reasons why character development is a crucial aspect of fiction writing. So, before getting too far into a story – or even before beginning to write a story – it’s important to get to know your protagonist as closely as you know your friends, parents, even yourself.
Last summer I took Cheryl Eagan-Donovan’s “Character Development Intensive” at Grub Street. My goal for the class was to find ways of digging to the heart of my novel-in-progress’s protagonist. I wanted to make her as authentic as possible. Cheryl’s workshop turned out to be an incredible learning opportunity. We watched film clips to see examples of dynamic characters and did in-class writing exercises to develop different angles of our own main characters, or MCs. Which exercise inspired me the most? The one where we wrote a journal entry from our MC’s point of view.
It’s a simple free-writing exercise to start, lasting 10 or 15 minutes. However, it can snowball into a much longer and more detailed profile of your protagonist. (As of late January, mine was closing in on 20 pages!) Think of it as an autobiography, or an interview where nothing is “off the record.” You’ll need that openness so you can get to know your MC well.
Let the protagonist introduce herself.
Start by writing this line: “Hello, my name is …” Then let your MC continue from there. Have her tell you the essentials: How old is she? What does she look like? Who does she live with, and where? Did she go to school?
These details may seem superficial, but they'll let you draw a mental picture of your protagonist that you can carry as you write your story. They'll also help you place your MC in her initial setting (location, time period, etc.) and give you clues about how she speaks (i.e., her unique voice).
Dive into the character's backstory.
We've read and heard the warning many times: “Be careful not to clog your stories with a character's personal history.” That advice does not apply to this exercise. In fact, your MC's journal entry is the ideal place to slip in as much backstory as your heart desires.
Consider where your protagonist will be when your story begins. Then ask her how she got to that point. What was her childhood and family life like? What events and decisions brought her to where she is today? How did they affect her? These and other questions will help you to establish your MC's motivations and goals, among other things.
What's great about including backstory in this journal entry is it turns the piece into an encyclopedia on your character. You can refer back to the exercise as you write your story to refresh your memory or to add to your work-in-progress. Just recently, I copied one part of the journal entry's backstory section into a conversation where my protagonist explained an important life decision from her past to another character. That's when I realized just how helpful this exercise had been.
Ask your most “burning questions.”
Now it's time for the juicy stuff. Ask your protagonist deep, thought-provoking questions that reveal how she feels or thinks about, well, anything. What is she afraid of? How does she describe her relationships with the people in her life or with the story's other characters? I even asked my MC what she was willing to die for. Not only did her answer inspire me, but it also made sense because of the circumstances she'll face in the story.
All of your MC's answers are related to who your character is and how she'll behave in your story. Her answers will give you insight into decisions and actions she'll make that could move your plot along. They could even hint at how she may catalyze a major plot point.
Use your protagonist's voice, not yours.
Remember: this journal entry isn't about you. It's about your MC. So, as your MC (or you writing from your character's perspective) answers each question and reveals more about herself, consider how she would respond. What words would she use? Would her sentences be short and to-the-point, or complex and wandering? Would she be excited, angry, or pensive when giving that particular answer?
If you're having trouble finding your protagonist's voice, refer to the essentials you recorded to start the journal entry. If your character is a high-school student, how would someone her age talk? How about if she lived on a farm in a rural area? Or if she was a medieval princess?
Most importantly, have fun with this exercise! You never know what you might learn about your character and how she can help you shape your story. And the more interesting or developed your protagonist is, the more likely your audience will be to connect with her during your story.
NOTE: If you’re interested in taking Grub Street courses on character development, check Grub’s website to see what workshops are available. Go to www.grubstreet.org, click “Find A Class,” and type in “character” as your keyword.
Sara Letourneau thrives on practicing versatility as a writer. Her poetry has been published in The Curry Arts Journal, Soul-Lit, The Eunoia Review, Underground Voices, and two anthologies. She also reviews music reviews for Sonic Cathedral’s webzine. On top of all that, she's working on her second novel (her first completed one is unpublished). Visit Sara’s website (http://saraletourneau.wordpress.com) and public Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/sara.letourneau.official) to follow her career.
Sara Letourneau thrives on practicing versatility as a writer. Her poetry has been published in The Curry Arts Journal, Soul-Lit, The Eunoia Review, Underground Voices, and two anthologies. She also freelances on occasion and was previously a staff writer for the Sonic Cathedral Webzine. Sara is currently working on her second novel (her first completed one is unpublished). Visit her website (http://saraletourneau.wordpress.com) and public Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/sara.letourneau.official) for more information.See other articles by Sara Letourneau