Sean Astin as Sam Gamgee.
Can you describe your character’s essence or their raison d’etre, in a short phrase? How about Sam Gamgee’s “Some things are worth fighting for.” Or Scarlett O’Hara’s “I’ll never be hungry again!”
Often we think of our characters as being so complex we need a whole novel to flesh them out. And we probably do. But what do they want above all else? What limitation do they always fear and fight against? What gives their lives meaning, in their own
estimation? Can’t such things be stated simply? We’ve always been told to know these things about our characters, but the dictum proved most valuable for me when I turned it into dialogue.
Although it does take many pages to bring these fears and aspirations to light in a novel, the author must know them more directly. For this reason, it may be helpful if a writer creates a visceral handle for central characters, to keep their through line clearly in view. Something the character would say.
Recently I tried boiling down my words to one phrase for each of eleven characters in my paranormal novel of the interwar years in England. I was surprised at how quickly the essence of each important character came to me.
Here was the product of that exercise: Kim (protagonist): For the innocent. Julian: Never again. Martin (a teenager): I always screw up. Antagonist: Revenge is sweet. Rose: I have my part. Gustaw: Fight them in the shadows. Owen: We will out think them. Lloyd: I got screwed. The spymaster: My hands are tied. Elsa: Appearances deceive. Walter: I’ve got your back.
I keep coming back to these lines and relying on their wisdom and clarity. Now I just have to write these characters onto the page!
I think it works best not to labor over it, just write quickly and see if your subconscious “knows” these people. You may find that there is a sentence, a defining line of dialogue, that you can imagine them saying with passion and even heart-breaking honesty.