Monday, February 16, 2015

How to Build Unique Character Voices

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the Ellie Sweet books (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website including the free novella, Throwing Stones.

As I talked about last Monday, if you've been hanging around the writing world for very long at all, you've likely heard about the importance of having a strong author voice.

But you've also probably heard about the idea of characters having their own unique voices, that you don't want all your characters to sound the same. Especially if you're writing your story in multiple points of view. Books like The Help by Kathryn Stockett and The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver are praised for how each character has a unique sound. How even if the author didn't say the character name at the start of each chapter, you would still know who it was because the character voice is so strong.

So how do all these voicesauthor voice and character voicework together?


Creating strong and unique character voices is a quality of being a good writer. While it seems like character voice would steal from your author voice, somehow it doesn't.

I bet you can even think of an author you love who you would say has a great voice, but who has also written several different books with strong character voices. Let's use Jane Austen as an example. She has a unique author voice, and yet Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice sounds nothing like Emma Woodhouse from Emma.

As we talked about last week, your author voice is something you can influence and work to develop, but it's also something that's inside of you, rooted in your unique view of the world.

Character voice, however, is something you build completely from scratch. Here's how you do it:



1. Start with their position in the story.

By this I simple mean, who is this character in the story. How old are they? What kind of money do they have? Where do they live? What kind of people are they around?

I'll use two of the male characters from my Ellie Sweet books, Palmer and Chase, as an example. I'll just pick a few items that influence their voice, and I think you'll get a clear picture of how you can expand on this:

Palmer:
Palmer is a new kid at school: This means, particularly at the start of the story, he will still be in the "impression management" phase during conversations. He's building a new life here, and he wants to look like a cool guy.
Palmer is seventeen and from Kentucky: For my California born-and-bred main character, she'll notice the different way he says words, even though I chose not to go very heavy on dialect in my book. And being seventeen means he'll talk different than he would if he were twenty-seven or ninety-seven.
Palmer is somebody Ellie has a crush on: While at a glance it may not seem like this is something that influences Palmer's voice, it certainly does. As an author, it means that I need to figure out why Ellie likes being around him. So I designed Palmer in a way that Ellie liked talking to him. He's flirtatious and charming and (mostly) makes her feel special when they talk.

Chase:
Chase has never moved: Chase has an established reputation. This means his dialogue is built around protecting the image he has.
Chase is also seventeen, and he's from a rough part of town and a family that's had trouble with the law: With two older brothers who made life miserable for the school administration, Chase is used to teachers/classmates expecting nothing but trouble from him. A lot of times I noticed that this developed a bitter tinge toChase's dialogue. He feels like he was never given a fair chance by anybody and it impacts how he talks.
Chase is somebody who scares (and confuses) Ellie: While Palmer is a master and smooth talking girls and often says "the right thing" or what Ellie expects, I wanted Chase to unsettle her. His reputation already has her on edge, and then conversations with him never go the way she thinks they will.

(If you want to get a feel for how these two different characters play out on the page, you can read the first chapter of The Revised Life of Ellie Sweet on my website. Or you can grab the whole book for just .99 on your Kindle.)

Again, these are just three facets of Palmer and Chase's voices. You'll want to think through their education, what part of the country they live in, their religious beliefs, their favorite books, and all kinds of things to get a broader scope.

2. Think through the character's primary motivator.

My agent had me do this with a manuscript of mine when my characters were reading a bit "scattered." Ask yourself, "What is it that motivates this character through the story?"

A character like Palmer, who's eager to make a splash in a new environment, is going to act and talk differently than a character like Chase. Chase, with his tough-as-nails reputation will act different than a character who wants everyone to like him. Make sense?

3. Define your characters  in one word.

As talked about in this post, it can be really helpful to find a word that your character would use to describe themselves. The words I chose for my example characters are:

Palmer: "In control" If you pride yourself on being in control, how might that color the way you talk? You'll be careful about what you reveal, won't you? Palmer keeps conversations light and tries to always position himself so that he's showing his good side.

Chase: "Bad news" Chase's view of himself as bad news means he doesn't mind saying things that might make Ellie uncomfortable or angry.

(Let's ignore that neither of those descriptors are one word!)

4. Delve into their back story.

This is where writing magic happens, I swear. 

Our personal back stories heavily influence how we interact with people and determining your characters' histories is how you'll develop a lot of the subtext in their conversations.

My favorite method is to use character journals, which I learned from James Scott Bell. I do this by picking a character (not my main character) and then I spend time free writing in first person.

Start by picking a question that's a good springboard for rambling. The one that's most effective for me is, "Tell me about your family."

And then you just write.

I've heard my mother was once beautiful, but a marriage to a cruel man left her looking old long before her time. I guess that's why I've never really believed in marriage. All I've ever seen is how it destroys.
I'm often surprised by how long I can go on for. Pages and pages, especially if I'm nailing down the backstory of an antagonist.

I think the reason this works so well is that you're getting deep in their head and figuring out why their bad choices make sense to them. Even if what you learn during the character journal process is never actually stated in the story, knowing it will help you create a consistent, logical character.

5. Write their dialogue (and/or their point-of-view chapters) as best you can from what you've learned.

Once you've done some of those exercises, it's time to write the story to the best of your ability. In a first draft, I wouldn't worry too much about if the character voices don't seem quite right. I seem to hit my stride with the characters somewhere around the midpoint, and I try to not let that bother me, It can be fixed in edits.

6. Refine their phrasings and word choices in edits.

Inevitably, when I'm editing I come across a piece of dialogue or a joke that just doesn't suit the character. By now, I've spent so much time with these people that I usually recognize it right away. If I don't, though, my critique partners will find it.

For fun, name one of your favorite characters from literature who has a strong voice. The first one I think of is Martyr from Jill Williamson's Replication.

58 comments:

  1. Thanks for the great advice! The first one that came to mind for me is Vi from Possession by Elana Johnson.

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    1. Glad you liked it! I haven't read that book yet.

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  2. Thanks for the brilliant advice! I've never tried character journals before, but I'm jumping to do it now. The character that comes to me immediately is Percy Jackson. His clear, sarcastic voice echoes in the prose.

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    1. Character journals are one of those exercises I come back to again and again. I'm amazed at how well they work for me. I hope they work for you too, Jonathan!

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  3. This is a very timely post, given that I'm working on edits. My MC has a pretty strong voice (she's the only POV through the story) but there are a couple of side characters who need "strengthening".

    One character that came to mind regarding voice was Annabeth Chase (from Percy Jackson). She's smart, she's focused...she's one of my favorite characters.

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    1. I often find the same thing in edits. My main character is in good shape, but everyone else is a bit watery :)

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  4. Thank you so much for answering my question on this Stephanie, extremely helpfl. Voice is something I'm quite struggling with, and this helped a lot.

    The first character that jumped to mind was Hermione from the Harry Potter books. I absolutely adore her witty voice.

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    1. I'm so glad you found it helpful! And Hermione is one of my all-time favorite characters :)

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    2. J.K. Rowling is really good in doing character voice. Ron first popped into my head, but Hermione is one of my favourites, too. And I'm definitely trying the journal, thank you Stephanie!

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  5. This is great! I'm working through this myself while editing, and it's super hard! But I think I've finally gotten the hang of some of the characters. Backstory really does do wonders with helping that along. Thanks for the reminder!

    My favorite character with a strong voice - or the one who comes to mind first - is probably David from Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson. He's so funny and quirky and human, and it really shines through.

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  6. One of my favorite characters with a strong voice is Hazel from The Fault In Our Stars. I love the way I can always tell that it's Hazel that's talking.
    I have a question. You know when you get a feeling about a character or a hunch about a plot point, even though the author hasn't technically said anything about it? How do authors create those feelings and hunches without saying "This character is bad" or "This is going to happen next"? I hope that makes sense. I've always just wondered how that works. Is it a matter of character voice, subtle clues that the reader doesn't pick up on, etc.?

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    1. Hazel has a wonderful voice :)

      That's a really great question. The thing that immediately came to mind is building an inconsistency into the character. In real life, that's often what clues us in that someone isn't quite what they seem; we notice something inconsistent about how they act and what they say. I think I would start there.

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    2. Alyssa, here's some ideas on how to create inconsistencies:

      1. a secondary character doesn't like one person even though the main character trusts him/her. The secondary character's dislike could be brushed aside by the main character, but the reader is going to wonder.
      2. main character interprets body language different than the reader. A main character might dismiss a pointed look, but the reader will pick up on it.
      3. Dialogue can be taken different ways. The main character might think the dialogue sounds one way, but the reader picks up the undercurrent.

      I'm sure there are more ways of doing that, but those are the things that come to mind (especially if you're working with a mystery/the main character doesn't know who the bad guy is).

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  7. This is really helpful! One of the strong voices from classic literature that I can think of right now is Huck from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. He actually as an accent! It's incredible! Also, Raol from Before Midnight, Max Ernest from The Name of this book is Secret (the author has a very very strong voice! Sometimes stronger than the characters and it's actually kinda funny! In a good way of course! These books are highly entertaining!) Also, Peeta from The Hunger Games, Gally from The Maze Runner, and I'll stop now! (I love characters! :)

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    1. Characters are the best, aren't they? :) Love your examples!

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    2. I could go on a rant all day. Sometimes me and my sister stay up really late talking about characters and brainstorming. :) Thanks for the wonderful post! I've definitely going to work with this. Thank you thank you thank you!!!:)

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  8. I've been reworking bits of my current antagonist, so thank you for this! I always mean to try the character journal trick to make them pop. Now I'll have to do it!
    One character voice I liked was Mina Hamilton in Sucks to Be Me. It's from her POV, but her dialogue really shined even though the author's voice was a little iffy - I think that saved the book for me. Holly Black's (dark) fantasy characters always have great voices too. And the monster in Frankenstein was fascinating to read through. I'll stop now, there are so many good examples. :)

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    1. Those are great examples! I hope character journaling works as well for you as it does for me.

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  9. Lyddie from Lyddie by Katherine Paterson pops into my mind :) she's got a strong personality :)

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    1. I haven't read that one yet. I love learning about new books :)

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  10. Anne in Anne of Green Gables. I absolutely love her voice ;-)

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  11. This was hugely helpful. Characters are definitely the thing I struggle most with as a writer. I know their motivations, parts of their backstory but when they hit the page they act so wrong. Imagine something along the lines of a joyful Katniss, unharmed by all the things she's witnessed in her life. Or a brooding Percy Jackson who's only concerned about his daddy issues. I'm hoping that a character journal might help me out.
    I have a question for you, Stephanie (I did email it to you a few weeks ago, but wasn't sure if you had received it. If you have, I apologise for the repetition.) I have two characters, a boy and a girl. I need them to JUST BE FRIENDS. I think because I struggle with their voices, they just kinda turn into Typical YA Boy and Typical YA Girl who find each other complete soulmates. It's frustrating. I tried thinking of what makes a relationship between members of the opposite gender JUST a friendship but I couldn't come up with much. I can't put either one of them in a relationship either so that they're 'taken' (complicated reason but they are NEVER going to get together).
    Please help. It's driving me figuratively up the wall.

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    1. I'm behind on email due to being at the hospital with my son, so I'll just go ahead and answer here :)

      That's a really tough question. I don't know that I've ever dealt with that in a book, so hopefully another member in the community will have a good suggestion. You can do the whole, "It's more like we're brother and sister than friends" type thing, but I really can't quickly thing of anything else that would keep them apart.

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    2. Maybe they could have unreconcilable worldview differences? Like, maybe one of them is a really strong Christian, and the other is a happy atheist, so while they enjoy talking about various things and trust eachother reasonably, they know it wouldn't work out long term?

      Or maybe it could be something like they had siblings/mutual friends who were dating and so they got stuck seeing eachother all the time and sort of eked out a friendship, and then the siblings/mutual friends broke up and while your characters aren't going to quit being friends dating would feel too weird?

      Or, as in one of my unwritten books, the guy was forced by a totalitarian government to be engaged to the girl's cousin, so obviously that was a bit of an impediment. (Okay, so my characters end up together anyway, and you'd kinda need an arranged marriage system for that to work, sooo...)

      Maybe one character takes music lessons or some such from the other character's parent and so it's like...eww, I can't date him/her, I've known his/her parent forever?

      I dunno. Hope something was helpful. Usually in that situation I'd either have the characters fall in love or fall for other people.

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    3. Sairah, I like Miri's suggestion to go with the whole "we've been friends so long dating would be weird." That sounds kind of what you were going for? What might help is to have your characters address the issue head on. Maybe everyone around them expects them to date eventually. Their parents even hint at it, etc. Maybe they even go on a date just to please everyone, but it's really awkward. If the characters know why they are best as just friends and are very clear to each other and the reader that they are just friends, then the reader won't be looking for a romance because the reader knows why this guy and girl are just friends. It would also be a great opportunity to add tension if they are expected to fall in love and don't.

      This is all just an idea. You don't have to use any of it if you don't want to. :)

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    4. This is actually something I've thought about before too, and never came up with a satisfying answer... But Miri your first suggestion especially stood out to me. I have relationships like that in real life, so I don't know why it never occurred to me! Thank you SO much (both of you) I may just have to dust one of my abandoned drafts off ;D

      -Deborah

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    5. Thank you all for your suggestions. I just forgot to mention one thing - they've just met. (It'd be kinda hard for her to know his parents since they're dead, too) They're not best friends and they haven't been since they were kids as they've only just met. The religious thing was a nice suggestion but it won't work in my story nor will the marriage thing. It's hard especially since I can't pair either of them off. I was hoping that by putting an age gap (of three pathetic years!) in between them, it'd help but it's not. Maybe I should just find what they have in common and draw on that, as well as elaborating other friendships of theirs. Can anyone think of movies or books where the guy and the girl are just friends? It'd be good for me to study those relationships I think.
      Oh and Deborah, one of my close guy friends and I were always 'shipped' together, even though nothing was going on. It separated us for a bit (the rumours made it awkward) but in the end we had a really easy friendship. I think part of what made it a friendship is that it was always funny, teasing and competitive. We wanted the best for each other and did favours or helped the other out. A little bit of plotted havoc in class never went astray either.
      The problem I have, is that my characters are so dynamic that it's hard for them to do these kind of things. So basically They're both guards of sorts who are friends with the girl they protect. Obviously the three of them spend time together but I need to develop out my Mc's friendship with him. It's very hard but your suggestions have got me thinking. Any new ones would be appreciated too :)
      -Sairah

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    6. If it were me, I would just focus on building a strong friendship between the two. Maybe since they're working together you could focus on how they work as a team to protect this girl? Or maybe they could discuss it like Tricia said, and decide it would be better not to have a romantic relationship because of how dangerous their job is, and it would be hard if something happened to one for the other person?
      Anyway good luck! :D
      -Deborah

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  12. Thanks for posting this! I've noticed some of my characters have similar voices, and this will come in useful. :-)

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  13. Great post! My characters...uh... have a tendency to sound like me and not like people, but one thing that's actually helped me is roleplaying with them. My NaNo friends and I have a roleplay, and while I usually don't go on because time is a precious commodity, I tried it this weekend and was amazed at how real they started to feel. I guess it helps because when most of the conversation comes from other people's characters you have to make your characters think on their feet.

    Hmm...some strong voices that jump to mind are Scout from "To Kill A Mockingbird" and Maximum Ride, though I'm still forgiving James Patterson for stuff later in the series.

    As an off-topic note, I got "Me, Just Different" on kindle for my birthday to reread, and for some reason my kindle got confused and there were no flowers marking scene changes, just paragraph breaks. But your scene-setting was so seamless that I was rarely taken out of the story by it. *sighs happily* Wow, there were great themes in there I somehow missed when I read it a year ago... perhaps it's a sign I've matured somewhat.

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    1. My Kindle doesn't show the scene breaks either - grr. I think it's because of the way it was formatted. I'm glad it still worked as you re-read it. I hyperventilated a little bit when I first saw they'd been left out :)

      Roleplay is a great idea!

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  14. Thanks for the post! It was really good. I have a question about characters, though... do you have any suggestions on how to make them more likeable? One thing I have trouble with it making likeable characters... I think one reason is I make their life so terrible they have no reason to be happy so.... if you (or anyone) as suggestions, though, thank you! :)

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    1. I would suggest giving them a quirk. Yeah, they can be brooding, they can be easily irritated, extremely sarcastic, or simply utterly miserable, but what if you were to give them just one thing that brought them a bit of happiness? One thing that they loved more than any other thing in the world? Maybe they still wouldn't be quite likeable, but it might make them easier to sympathize with.

      Or you might put in one character who, despite their circumstances, always seems to have a smile on their face. Maybe they would be a close friend to your MC, and they would be the only person who could get them to smile.

      Or you might do both. *Shrugs.* That's all I've got. I hope that it's been at least somewhat helpful, Naomi! :-)

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    2. Thank you, Natasha! I like those suggestions.... :)

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    3. Natasha's ideas are really good. Another technique I've seen used is making your character really good at something. We naturally like characters who have a skill we admire. Also, humor covers a multitude of flaws :)

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    4. Okay, thank you! I really appreciate your guys' advice!

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  15. I always liked Jill's spy novels as far as voice goes.

    Personally, I try to remember my characters personalities: Artemis is a goddess who believes this position makes her all-powerful and better than everyone else, she also hates people who only think about themselves, making her conflicted at times. She is brusk, never saying two words when she can use one, and dislikes people in general.

    Demetre is a compassionate guy, who tries to find the good in most everyone. He'll talk to most anyone as long as they will let him, but he doesn't let anyone (except for Artemis) take advantage of him. He and Artemis supremely dislike each other, but for their different reasons, feel they need to stick together.

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    1. Agreed! Spencer's voice is excellent. And it sounds like you have a really good handle on who your characters are.

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  16. This was great! I loved Gabi's voice in the River of Time series by: Lisa T. Bergren.

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  17. Making character voices unique is so difficult. I'm currently revising my first novel, and all of my characters sound pretty much the same, except for my antagonist and my protagonist. I think the whole process of getting to know my characters and being comfortable in writing their voices is majorly influenced by the time I spend with my story. The more time I spend with it, the more I can develop it. Character journals also work really well, too. I always feel a bit silly writing them when I first start, but once I get going, it's really fun.

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    1. I agree. Time is definitely the best tool for understanding how your characters talk and think.

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  18. Stephanie,
    This whole post was helpful, but the thing that stuck out to me the very most is that your character voices aren't always perfect in the first draft. Mine aren't either, but I was kind of afraid that, if I didn't get it right in the first draft, it would never happen. Or that my character would say something out-of-character and a key scene be dependent on it (making revision difficult).
    It's encouraging to know that character voices can be perfected later. Thank you!

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    1. Yes, that's very freeing, isn't it? I spend a lot of time fixing character voices in edits.

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  19. If you want a good example of voice watch 'Mom's Night Out.' Every single one of those characters have a unique voice and it's fun to watch how it plays out. :)

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    1. I keep hearing that I need to see that :)

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    2. STEPH!!! You must see this. It's wonderful and very applicable to your life right now, though I don't think your children are quite so wild. I think Ben will like it too. Brad did. I laughed so hard I cried, though I was at the theater and laughter is infectious...

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  20. Thanks, Steph. I loved reading Eleanor's voice in Eleanor & Park. I also loved Sam's voice in Jerk, California.

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  21. I just finished Airhead by Meg Cabot and I was immediately struck by the voice in that.
    Also, great post! Voice is something I never grasp until closer to the end of the first draft, so I have to go back and edit that in. But by then, I know what my charries sound like, so it isn't too hard to spot the parts that aren't right.


    Alexa S. Winters
    thessalexa.blogspot.com

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  22. I'm reading 'Assassin's Apprentice' by Robin Hobb and the main character has a fantastic voice which also manages to grow as the character ages. I've often found getting someone to interview or interviewing my characters helps catch the voice. In terms of questions, some I've found useful have been general life coaching ones, and this list http://mobile.nytimes.com/2015/01/11/fashion/no-37-big-wedding-or-small.html?referrer= which is part of a study on self disclosure and has some really deep questions (when was the last time you cried in front of someone?).I've yet to try journaling the answers though. That'll be something to try...

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  23. I remember you saying Character Journals are helpful, so I tried it with my villain. It kinda failed miserably, so I put it off for a bit and learned more about him by writing a transcript/narrative of me personally interviewing him. That worked!
    Then, just a week ago, I decided to try Character Journals again. For my Creative Writing class we have to do three journal entries a week: two prompted, one free write. The prompted entries were getting boring because they were all about me, but I really got down to business when I forced my characters to "write about a privilege you earned" or answer "what is one machine you couldn't live without?" It so worked!!!

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