Last week, I wrote about 6 Steps to Discovering Characters. The method I described was given to me by Danielle Hanna, published author, good friend, and brainstorming partner.
Today, I’ll continue discussing character development with Danielle by talking about her method of character discovery, which she calls skin diving.
Carrie: Danielle, welcome to Writing Well. Thank you for taking the time to talk about skin diving.
Danielle: Thanks for having me.
Carrie: Give us an overview of your method for getting to know new characters.
Danielle: One of the things I do is “slip into their skin.” I imagine myself in my character’s body, seeing the world through his eyes. It’s actually one of the most effective ways I’ve found of really getting to know my character—of understanding how he sees himself as the main character in his own story.
Carrie: How do you do that?
Danielle: The easiest way I’ve found is to start stationary—either sitting or standing. You have to be listening to gut instincts. Ask the character, “How do you typically sit?” For instance, one of my characters, an older man, has an old leg injury. He often sits with that leg stretched out in front of him, rubbing the sore muscles. It’s become a habit he’s not even aware of.
I have another character who’s very vivacious and outgoing. When I stand “in his skin,” I find my hands on my hips and my head tilted back, a smile on my face—because he finds reason to smile at everything.
But before I even try to slip into my character’s skin, I attempt to transform the elements of the world around me into the elements of the character’s world. The skin dive becomes more vivid if my world closely matches the story world. If a scene takes place on a back porch, I’ll go sit on my back porch. If my world is too dissimilar, I have to work harder at using my imagination. I’ll still try to pick out one or two things in my world that would be the same or very similar in the story world.
Once I’m in the character’s skin, and I have at least a little bit of touch with the story world, I try to play a scene. I don’t direct what happens. I let the character carry me away.
Carrie: Can you give us an example?
Danielle: I was taking my dog outside before bed. It was pitch black, a little windy, but warm. One of my characters, Tommy, approached and told me we were going skin diving. I’d been in his skin a few times before, so I found it easy to stand the way he would .
Then I looked out on my world—the darkness; the shadows; the warm, troubled air. Tommy told me this was exactly the way his world looked right now.
Then I waited for another character to show up. (They usually do during these sessions.)
To my surprise, it was Tommy’s son. Thing was, I had thought he was dead. But no, there he was. Meeting with his dad in the dark of night . The dark of night part didn’t confuse me, because I knew the son had been in trouble with the law.
They began a vivid conversation, boiling into an argument. As usual, I spoke my character’s part out loud. I learned volumes about both of them. The upshot of the session was a strong gut instinct that I had been wrong about the son; he really is still alive; and his dad is really mad at him. In fact, that whole session might make it into the novel.
Carrie: There has to be a starting point. You said you’d been in this character’s skin several times before. Where did it start? What was the first thing?
Danielle: I started skin diving when I was still practically a kid and transitioning between playing with dolls and playing with story characters. It was all the same to me.
I can’t recall how or when I first started skin-diving with Tommy. The memory has been swallowed up in the murky past.
More recently, I was struggling with a character named Al. I felt he had so much more to tell me, and if I could only slip into his skin … if I could become him like I “became” the toys I had played with when I was a kid …
So I went out on my back porch.
It was spring, warm, sunny.
I picked a chair and sat in it.
And I started by simply asking myself, “How does Al sit?”
That first day, I let my gut instincts lead me into Al’s typical sitting-in-chair posture. He’s tall, and I envisioned his legs stretched out in front of him, crossed at the ankles.
And then I felt he had his arms on the armrests.
And then I felt he had his chin resting in his hand, his fingers covering his mouth.
And I saw him looking out at the world with veiled but perceptive eyes.
And that was my first skin-diving session with Al.
On that last part, about the eyes–you can see how simply assuming his posture led to learning something about his personality: Veiled but perceptive eyes. He doesn’t like other people seeing in, but he observes everything around him.
Carrie: Fascinating and it doesn’t sound that difficult.
But you said you’d been having trouble with him, which implies that you’d been trying to sort him out for some time. Is that correct?
Danielle: Yeah. I had his whole story wrong. So I cleaned the slate and asked him if he’d like to give me a second chance. That day on the back porch was the beginning of starting over. I’m so glad he agreed. He’s one of my best characters.
In fact, I’d say that learning to slip into his skin saved our relationship.
Carrie: Thanks for explaining your methods, Danielle.
The first time Danielle described her skin diving technique, I couldn’t imagine how to begin and the idea locked up my brain.
But I had a character from some time ago that I knew enough about to have a starting point. Under Danielle’s tutelage, I gave skin diving a try. The results were remarkable. Not only did I meet the Professor again, but I learned a few things, too.
Danielle’s method of skin diving is a learning experience and may feel awkward in the beginning. She assures me that it gets easier each time. The important things is to have no preconceived notions about the character or about who else might show up. Patience is also necessary.
As is a bit of boldness.
Just be aware that things will naturally begin foggy and so vague you may not know where you are, but that they will clear up and you’ll begin to see and understand your character.
Danielle Lincoln Hanna writes Hearth & Homicide Suspense. As much as you can expect shadows in the night, the echoes of gunfire, and the flashing reds-and-blues, you can also expect the porch light to be on and a warm cup of cocoa awaiting you at the fireside. When she’s not riveted to her computer, you can find her camping, hiking, and biking with her dog Molly.
Bailey Johnson landed the coolest summer job ever: mail jumper on the historic Lake Geneva Mailboat. Falling into the lake is pretty much a hazard of the job. Finding a dead body underwater is pretty much not. One mistimed jump restarts a manhunt, unsolved since before she was born, and reopens old wounds that were only half healed. As if that weren’t bad enough, she’s stuck in the most epically abysmal foster home ever, since she first entered “the system” eleven years ago. Abuse at home, bullets flying in the street … and she thought prom was bad. All she wants is a family of her own. Is that so much to ask for? A forever family–provided she survives the summer.