One of the things I love best about being a novelist is getting to create interesting, memorable characters and leading them down whatever paths I choose. It makes up for not having any control over the real characters in my life, particularly my kids. Can't force them to speak or act the way I'd like, but take a young man like 17-year old Aaron Findley in DEAR NEIGHBOR, DROP DEAD and I've got the power to shape him as I see fit. It's like my mother used to say, "I brought you into this world and I can take you out..."
The big challenge in creating fictional characters is getting them to feel and sound real while showing off their strengths and weaknesses. To do this, I have to dig deep into their make-believe psyches and come up with reasonable explanations for their motives. But to get to that point, I must begin by writing their biographies and not skimping on any of the details.
Sometimes for inspiration I'll even assign them a random birth date and have their natal charts done on one of those astrology websites (fascinating). But one of my favorite brain-gushing exercises is to conduct an interview with the developing character. Actually pretend that we're sitting face to face so that I can pose hard-ball questions. How did you really feel about your first grade teacher after she dumped your desk? What was your major in college and how many times did you change it? When you married your husband, did you have any idea that he was so cheap or that his mother was a kleptomaniac? Out of the process evolves (if I'm lucky) a character with a whole rich history and of course, dreams that haven't come true .
After years of using this method, I discovered on a lark that I can turn the tables and use this free-flow method to do some creative problem solving of my own. I'll sit at the computer and write questions, then force myself to answer them. Tell me how this disaster got started. Who do you blame? Who have you asked for help? What do you think is the best solution here? Why haven't you tried that?
The trick is to just let the answers rip- not correct the spelling and punctuation or worry that your thoughts sound like unintelligible babbling... You want answers, not an SAT essay. In fact, much like keeping a journal, it is amazing at how honest and insightful we can be when we know that our thoughts are for our eyes only.
If you've got something going on in your life that's really eating you up inside (and who doesn't?), it's worth a shot to try this interview-with-yourself method. It's way cheaper than therapy and a good device to pass down to our kids. Now when they whine, "Mom, what should I do?" You can say, "I don't know. Go have a nice chat with yourself. I'm sure you'll come up with a good solution."
Warning: this method is unlikely to work the same magic with husbands and boyfriends. Half the time they complain that they can't type and the other half they complain that their biggest problem is us. I know... you could probably write a book of your own!