Real People, Real Character Development

This is a shout-out to all you ghostwriters who aspire to short story, novella, and novel writing. Whether you’ve been supplementing your byline-writing income with some words on the down-low or you’re using your stint as a ghostwriter to hone your skills, listen up. This is a lesson from the streets, a hands-on snub to classroom learning.

I’ve attended a number of workshops and writers’ chats concerning the endearment of my characters to readers. I’ve jotted notes, accepted hand-outs, and submitted exercises. I’ve learned that one-dimensional, or flat, characters are not only boring, they’re story saboteurs. All that’s wonderful, and probably necessary to the fiction learning process, but something was missing. I found myself wondering: How can I learn to create three-dimensional characters when all of the teaching tools are flat? The paper, the desktop, the smartboard, the instructor’s tone…it’s like I’m watching a black-and-white silent documentary on how to create magical, mystical, and not-yet-existent 3D movies. Where’s the real?

Then I found “the real.” I discovered an incomparable method for character development. It’s ghostwriting, and you can use it, too. Here’s the plan:

1. Insist on interviewing every client. I’m not talking about IM, email, or text. I’m talking about good, old-fashioned voice-to-voice or face-to-face conversation. You’ll hear the inflection of their voice. You’ll pick up on their angst and their unadulterated joy. Listen to their words, but just as importantly, hear the emotion. Tap into this when writing your fictional characters’ dialogue.

2. Inquire pointedly about the client’s feelings. If someone is recounting a traumatic event in his life, take him back to that time with questions like, “What was your coping mechanism?”, “Did you lose any sleep?”, or “Did you have a friend who helped you through this?” Listen and absorb the emotion. He will feel deeply connected to the finished product and you’ll be well on your way to discovering the emotional landscape of your next fictional character.

3. After completing your client’s project, and while all of the events, messages, and emotions are fresh in your mind and heart, play a game of “What If?” What if, instead of his child passing away, the baby had been kidnapped and recovered? How would this person, given his personality and beliefs, have reacted? What if he had been born into poverty instead of lavishness? What if he were Jewish instead of Catholic? How would that complicate his character? How would the repercussions of each deepen the plot of my fiction?

4. Remember that if you are intrigued by your client, your readers will likely be intrigued by a character with his quirks and qualities. Be professional, but speak to him like a friend. Welcome opinions and observations. Don’t criticize. The most authentic people are the real ones. That’s why fiction is so often based on truth.

Give your ghostwriting your all. Slip into your client’s berka, kimono, habit, track suit, or bath robe. Fall asleep wondering how you would have reacted if dropped into their life’s story. Dwell on the parts that you can’t forget. Change the parts that you would. You have that power — thanks in part to the one, indispensable dimension offered by ghostwriting.

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