Stop and write a letter…to your characters

Anyone who’s been to a house party knows about the odd ones out: that guy who chills by the food table and eats sweet midget pickles like they might save him; the girl who sulks in the corner with her cell phone, waiting for an all-important text from an unimportant sender; the man who wanders off into the hallway because he can’t make conversation and would rather stare at awkward photos of the host’s kids; the woman who sits on the couch all night, depending on others to refresh her drink.

You can’t just go up and ask them what it is they’re waiting on or pondering. Pickle guy will shrug and make some comment about the punch. Text girl will totally blow you off. Hallway man will straight up run away when he realizes how creepy he looks. And couch woman will be good for about three minutes of conversation before she’ll cross her leg over her knee, look out the window, and swirl her glass of pinot.

These sorts of inaccessible party goers are the mirror images of the characters who wander around in my mind refusing to talk to me.

They skitter away when I try to engage them. They are loathe to participate in the story.  They refuse to help me understand them.  And when I do write a segment in which they appear, they look at it with the dripping condescension of a crossword buff who just watched you fill in a row full of Zs.

Talking to these sorts of characters will not work, and neither will putting words in their mouth.

Which is why I started writing them letters.

Letter writing is one of those fading arts that as an author and historian I totally dig on. And I got to thinking about how my characters, all early 20th century or prior, would likely dig on letter writing, too. I imagined handing over enticing envelopes, thick with questions, and watching the looks on their faces…yep, I had intrigued them.

But as they took their questions and wandered off to consider them, I realized I had no way to read their answers. I needed some kind of interactive letter writing space. Somewhere where I could imagine them sitting at a desk, reading the questions, reacting, and penning an answer while I read over their shoulders. Where I could watch their stance, their penmanship, their pauses, their person.

And this is how I invented the letter writing station. The desk and the chair change based on the character. The time of day and the type of scenery are at their respective whims, whatever makes them feel comfortable. I just invite them in, let them set up, and then we write a letter together.

Here’s how it works.

*   *   *

EliseIt’s November 12, just before dusk. Elise West, my current main character, and also my main frustration, sits in a colonial style chair, thin little spindles of wood jutting up to a wide arching back piece.  Parallel thin little legs support her writing desk. She isn’t looking at me, because she just generally doesn’t. Why look at me when she can stare out the window? She does love the crisp blue sky and the leafless black tree limbs, I know that much.

I give her a moment to sit there, unbothered, noting her attire, the style of her hair, some other details that might come in handy for description later on. And then I pick up my pencil, take a deep breath, and write on the back of a discarded book review, “Dear Elise.”

There’s a slight twinge to her shoulders. I’ve got her attention. I start to panic—the woman seriously pays no attention to me, and now that she’s noticed me, I have no idea what to say.

“I really can’t begin to understand you, and I’m not entirely sure why,” I jot down. “Why I can’t understand you, I mean, and also why you insist on being so elusive.” She turns her face just a miniscule fraction of a fraction, and I can see the set of her jaw. She’s irked.


“So, Zoran as a father,” I write on my paper, trying to deflect her anger into a topic of conversation. “He’s a difficult man to know, right? I think he’s more of a feeling or a watchful eccentricity than a flesh and blood human. A comfort to you, but not a man who gets a kick out of long dinner parties. Am I right?” I look up.

She’s back to staring out the window. I’ve completely lost her, and when I look at what I’ve written in my letter to her, I realize I’m putting words in her mouth again, rather than asking her what she thinks. I swallow my pride as an author, my desire for control.

“Maybe I’m supposing too much for you, you seem impatient.” I write. She gives the tiniest of curt laughs.

Alright. I begin again. “What kind of person are you?”

She reaches for her pen and scribbles something on a sheet of thick white paper. Huh, I didn’t know she was left-handed, but there it is. And her answer is a flippant toss-away. I copy it down.

“A woman.”

That’s so helpful…

She picks up her pen and writes a bit more carefully, “An intelligent woman.” We’re getting somewhere. I watch her posture as I guess, “Not necessarily adventuresome, I think, more of a grounding spirit?” She taps her pen on the paper and then writes, and I copy, “No, not adventuresome, but intrepid in mind.”

Intrepid in mind.

I like it.

I underline it and look back at her sheet of paper to see how she followed the statement. “Not keen on change, really, but aware that there is something comforting in the fact that change is continuous.” Ohhhh, I think to myself, and then write down, “Maybe a bit like my grandma, that way?” I pretty much explode into goosebumps when I see that she wrote down “A bit like your grandma.”

Hot. Damn. I underline the passage twice. Elise and I just agreed on something. This is a first.

*   *   *

And this is also the moment that convinced me, in my first attempt to write a character a letter, that this would be a useful exercise. Not only had Elise loosened her body language, betrayed her prickly sense of humor, and picked a time of day to fit her personality, she had gifted me with a real life character reference that could help me to understand some of her interactions—my grandmother.

I liked Elise a whole hell of a lot more after I wrote this letter to her. And then I wrote letters to a number of other characters, and found each letter more interactive, more exciting, and more fulfilling than the last.

Except when I wrote to Matthew Abernathy. Guy is a total shit.

So my suggestion to you is…if you’re having trouble with your characters, consider writing them a letter. Or, if it makes you more comfortable, send them an email or a text. Take them out to coffee, walk with them in the park, go see a movie and gauge when they laugh. Try them out in lots of different circumstances and see what works for them.

Not what works for you. What works for them. 

And don’t forget to enjoy what they have to say.

Historian, novelist, musician, and imagination professional.

2 thoughts on “Stop and write a letter…to your characters

  1. I really enjoyed this post Erin…I often talk to important people in my past…trying to understand their personalities and how it has shaped not only me, but my children. and intrepid is a fabulous word.

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