Thursday, August 1, 2013

Taking my character far, far away to develop him - as in Jersey boy goes to British beach

Even though we've never met, Robin Constantine and I have been on the same page, so to speak, at the beach. We have been imagining characters from our respective novels (hers about to be published, mine a work in progress) on vacation at the beach. Since my novel also takes place in New Jersey, one would think that my main and secondary characters would also have familiarity with it. They don't. The absence of the Jersey shore experience among my New Jersey characters is, in itself, telling: Neither of them go for reasons related to their backgrounds.

However, while I was traveling through southern England last month and periodically writing, where did my second-most important character wind up? At another beach: Teignmouth, in the Devon region of England.

This, of course, is a less likely scenario than the Jersey shore, but imagining him all the way in Teignmouth, a Victorian/Edwardian English resort, freed me up to develop his personality. That was my goal as I was writing passages about him near the Teignmouth pier one morning two weeks ago.

Over the past months I have been developing my main character, but had zilch when it came to the second-most important one and I was getting frustrated. I knew why I was stuck--the secondary character was too "close-to-home" literally and culturally and so I kept stereotyping him based on what I know of the surface of local boys. I sat at a picnic table in Teignmouth with a cappuccino, looking out at the water, telling myself, "you can relax write!" and so of course I was completely stuck. Then it dawned on me: Make the character visit here too, describe how HE sees it (not just how I see it). If he were to visit this place, he, and his family, would be very, very much out of their comfort zone. How would he/they handle it? What would they do if they were here for a few days? How would it change them? There's nothing particularly exciting about Teignmouth, but it's pretty and relaxed before British schools let out. I imagined the character, initially uncomfortable with the place, would end up enjoying it, and it would change his perspective on certain matters--and I wrote that out. I may not use a lot of the material, but it helped me finally develop aspects of his character. I agree--where you are stuck on a character and can't move along...bring him or her somewhere else, particularly somewhere new to you, the writer. 


  1. Helen - I do this frequently and think it's one of the most awesome ways to get to know your character outside of the story!! And Teignmouth sounds pretty exotic to me!! And never underestimate writing 'outside the story' because sometimes you will find something that you do end up using!! Great post :)

  2. What a great idea! I often do character sketches but I never thought of bringing the character somewhere else.

  3. It's a common saying that travel brings out the best and the worst in everyone. It can be stressful. It can be restful.
    So it makes sense to imagine how your character would react in unfamiliar surroundings.

  4. I love this! And whether you use any of it in your novel, it is time well spent. Getting to know our characters takes time. No words are "thrown away." They are reduced, reused or recycled.