Dear Writer: A Letter Writing Exercise by W. H. Beck

dear characters

I have always been more of a premise/plot writer. (Anyone else out there?) What comes to me first is the idea for a story. Then I spend a whole lot of time mucking about, trying to figure out who the story is about—and why anyone should care.

For example, when I first conceived the idea for my middle grade novel, Malcolm at Midnight, it was this: what if classroom pets came together in a secret society after all the humans went home? Populating the story wasn’t hard. I needed a couple of students, a teacher, and of course, a menagerie of critters. Easy, right?

But how to make them real? And why would they do all the fantastic, funny things I imagined for them (getting flushed down a toilet! falling off a clock tower! stealing a diamond ring!)?

I’ll admit it: I floundered for quite a bit.

Then, I stumbled upon three things that “clicked” with me, and the combination of these three are, I believe, why Malcolm was my first published novel (and why my previous ones are still languishing in a drawer).

First, was an interview by Cecil Castellucci on how she creates characters by thinking of Superman: http://institutechildrenslit.net/index.php?topic=1940.0;wap2 .

Second, was this sentence I literally posted on my laptop screen: “It’s not what happens next, it’s what Malcolm does next.”

But both of those are probably posts all on their own.

The third is the technique I want to share today. In a fit of frustration with writing Malcolm at Midnight, I did some free-writing—crafting letters from each of my characters to Mr. Binney, the teacher character, explaining their actions in the story.

It was an epiphany moment. And while I can’t say the rest of the story wrote itself, it certainly gave me more purpose and direction than anything I had previously done. It’s a technique I still use today.

Here’s why I think it works…

Letters help you to understand characters’ motivations.

aggy

Characters can’t do things in stories for no reason—and the plot needs them to discover X so Y can happen…well, that isn’t an adequate reason.

This was a hard one for me to learn. Instead of moving characters around to hit plot points, I had to think about why my characters did the things they did. And they told me in their letters. Sometimes it was something in their past. Sometimes it was a personality quirk. And sometimes it was a secret they were hiding. But they all were acting—even the bad guys—because they believed it was the right or necessary thing to do.

Caution: this isn’t an invitation to then dump all this backstory into your story. Hints of it may surface, but just by you knowing it, your characters will ring more true.

Letters give your characters a voice.

 

the striped shadow

If you’re more of a plotter, like me, you maybe don’t “hear” your character talking like other writers do. But giving your characters quirks and mannerism and speech patterns to stand out in readers minds is important. When I wrote letters, suddenly, I heard Honey Bunny, the gruff male rabbit (who happens to be fluffy, cute, and misnamed), and he sounded like a very grumpy John Wayne. Snip, the bitter cat villain, had a hoarse whisper-voice, dripping with scorn. And the main student character—Amelia Vang—well, I ended up liking her earnest, overachieving voice so much, I kept her as my narrator. In fact, a version of her letter starts off the whole book.

M@Mphoto

Next time you’re stuck, pass the keyboard over to your characters and see how they explain themselves in a letter.

IMG_4692cropped2W.H. Beck is the author of the humorous middle grade mystery MALCOLM AT MIDNIGHT, its upcoming sequel, MALCOLM UNDER THE STARS, and several nonfiction titles. She splits her time between writing books for kids and reading and recommending them as an elementary school librarian in Wisconsin. Visit http://www.whbeck.com for more information and follow her on Twitter at @whbeck.

 

 

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145 comments on “Dear Writer: A Letter Writing Exercise by W. H. Beck

  1. Angela Turner says:

    I’m also more of a plotter. I have been wondering about how to bring more light to my characters. I will definitely try writing letters and see what happens. Thank you for your post.

    Like

  2. Seeing the examples of the letters you wrote for your story was very helpful.Great post.

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  3. Jessica Jordan says:

    My characters in the new story I’m working on just called for me. They said they have some explaining to do. Thanks for the tips!

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  4. I’m sure having the characters write letters will be more revealing than simply listing personality traits. Thank you for the tip!

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  5. jmvandenberg says:

    I really liked the quote about it’s what Malcolm does next that is important. My MC is the only child in the whole town at the beginning of the story and sometimes I feel he doesn’t have much to do until an adult does something and asks him to help. I need to turn that around and have him be more proactive. The letter writing is something I already do. I often discover hidden subplots by listening to my characters tell me what they think is happening. Great post.

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  6. lisakwillard says:

    Thanks you! Using letters sounds so helpful. Great idea to have characters write to each other too!

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  7. Linda says:

    Thanks! I will use this technique on my new WIP.

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  8. Deborah Allmand says:

    This seems so helpful! I had never thought about the characters that actually cause the issues in your novel writing letters. It was also interesting that they wrote to the teacher character and not to Malcolm. Great insight and leaves me plenty to think about. Thank you so much!!

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  9. Doris Stone says:

    Great advice, Thanks. I’m going to give character letter writing a try.

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  10. goaudreyrich says:

    Thank you for the post. The letter writing is a great idea!

    Like

  11. mojo0607 says:

    I’ve missed written correspondence and love the idea if launching a letter writing campaign to get to know my characters better. Thanks!

    Like

  12. Juliana Lee says:

    In kindergarten, we used to teach writing with an exercise called ‘Share the Pen’ where the teacher starts writing the morning message then passes the marker to a K volunteer to complete a word, write a word, or add a thought. By the end of the year, the K’s wrote almost the complete message. It was awesome, now I’ll have to ‘share the pen’ with my characters!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Noel Csermak says:

    This sounds like such a fun was to add depth to both character and story!

    Like

  14. kateywrites says:

    This seems like a great exercise to discover and expand on character voice. I’m really looking forward to trying it out this week! Thanks for sharing your ideas and even bits of the upcoming sequel with us.

    Like

  15. bucherwurm65 says:

    I have struggled with giving each of my characters a unique voice. I can’t wait to try this to see what happens. Thank you!

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  16. Thanks for a great post. I shall be putting a pen in my MC’s hand in the near future.

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  17. Rena Traxel says:

    What a great idea! I read the superman exercise and I was pleased to see that I hit all those points in my WIP.

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  18. Melanie Ellsworth says:

    That line that served as inspiration to you – “It’s not what happens next, it’s what Malcolm does next” – was really enlightening! I need to be sure to ask my characters what they’re doing next and why THEY chose to do it.

    Like

  19. Jocelyn Rish says:

    I’m definitely more of a plotter than anything else. For me it’s always about the action happening in the story, so I really struggle making the characters seem like anything other than chess pieces on my plot board. I’m really looking forward to giving this exercise a try – thank you!!!

    Like

  20. Lauren says:

    What a fabulous idea to delve more into my characters. I’m excited to try it!

    Like

  21. Nat Keller says:

    Great post!! I love how looking at your characters in a different light adds to the story..

    Like

  22. Sandy Perlic says:

    I have a novel I’ve been struggling with for awhile. This sounds like a perfect technique to try to see if I can overcome my plotting problems. Thanks!

    Like

  23. Charlotte says:

    Thank you for sharing Beck’s technique for free-writing. I am definitely going to use this with my characters 🙂

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  24. Carrie Brown says:

    Dear Carrie, Please write letters from your characters! Sincerely, Carrie (P.S. Thanks for this idea!)

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  25. Dear W.H.,
    This exercise will definitely help me get to know my characters better.
    Thanks. 🙂

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  26. Great exercise – thank you!

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  27. And here is my letter . . . Dear W. H. Beck, Such outstanding tips you shared today in Summer School. Your excellent examples explain how letters can portray the characters’ voice and motivation. Thank you. ~Sincerly, Suzy Leopold

    Like

  28. Laurie says:

    This could be a lot of fun, especially trying to rework writing so it is more show, don’t tell.

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  29. Rita says:

    Enjoyed this post. I will have to practice giving my characters the keyboard. It will not only help me get to know my characters, but will free my hands for handling my hot tea and snack!

    Like

  30. Val M says:

    As someone who treasures a written letter, this exercise really spoke to me. I can’t wait for my characters to write to me — I’m going to get out their pens and try this right away. Thank you, W.H.

    Like

  31. I’m definitely going to use this exercise to get to know my characters better, Can’t wait to hear what they have to say in their letters!

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  32. Mindy Alyse Weiss says:

    Thanks for your great post and exercise! I learned a lot about one of my characters from writing the letter…and even had him reveal an amazing nickname for my MC.

    Like

  33. Amy Benoit says:

    I identify with so much of what you are saying in this article! Thank you very much…I am re-energized!

    Like

  34. I love this technique, and I am anxious to give it a try. Thanks for sharing,

    Like

  35. Great exercise! Getting out my stationery!

    Like

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