The number one reason I don’t write is not wanting to. I am a delicate flower, and writing can stir up all kinds of uncomfortable neuroses in me. It is an unhealthy circuit of perfectionism, procrastination, and cupcakes.
However, when I’m at my best, I’m able to turn that circuit inside out. I sublimate all the crazy-person thoughts and emotions that tornado around me and turn them into an engine of creation. The good news is that fears are human. Fears motivate behavior. Fears generate conflict. As long as you have anxieties (and congratulations, you do), you have no reason to run out of ideas for your characters.
Try this method the next time you’re building a cast of characters for a story. Instead of writing a list of descriptive traits for each character, use your constellation of writing anxieties to drive all your characters. Let’s take an example of a short character bio of a typical space opera hero.
Captain Freddy Bio, Take 1
A smart, dashing spaceship captain. Valedictorian at the academy. Chosen to helm the Starmosey thanks to his big brains and big potential. Crack shot with a electrofizzler. Has a dark secret that only his earthbound sister knows.
This is fine, but a little flat. I find this kind of bio doesn’t really get me back to the word processor. He’s just sitting there. He seems clichéd, and it’s partly because I’ve written him that way, but it’s mostly because we haven’t actually met him yet. We’re just being told a list of facts about him, passively—and that’s part of why we get uptight and don’t return to the project. Remember the audience of your own notes is you. Why are we talking to ourselves like grocery lists?
Instead of a list of descriptions, try writing the character bio as a list of instructions to yourself. Use the imperative voice—these are commands. Tell yourself what to do with the character. The point of this bio isn’t just to figure out what the character is about. It’s to help you get excited about writing the story.
Captain Freddy Bio, Take 2
Make him larger-than-life. Crank up all his accomplishments and accolades—maybe open with a scene of him at an awards ceremony, or during his promotion to captain. Get him in an over-the-top dangerous situation early and show him excelling—maybe have him take a risky shot with an electrofizzler and lives to tell the tale. Give him a dark secret—one he really worries about.
For me, this is already tons better, even if it doesn’t supply much more information about Captain Freddy. The imperative voice helps propel me from mere brainstorming into real-live, actual writing. It turns a short character bio into a very fun to-do list of checkboxes (I mean, who doesn’t want to obey an instruction that says “get someone in an over-the-top dangerous situation”?). This sort of bio won’t just motivate your character—it’ll help motivate you.
Now comes the fun part. You know that halo of phobias and panics that accompany you to the writing desk? They’re secretly your friends. Don’t try to banish or ignore them. Use those fears to breathe humanity and action into your characters.
Captain Freddy Bio, Take 3
Create huge expectations for him, based on his brains and potential coming out of the academy. Maybe have some war hero say he’s going to be the best captain in history. Put all of your insecurities about your own abilities into Freddy. Let him envision how great it’ll be to ride in as the captain who just saved the galaxy, just like his idols in the old ElectroFizzler vid series—and just like you dream about being a celebrated writer. Make him worry about being seen as a fraud, just as you worry about others thinking you don’t know what you’re talking about. In fact, give him an opportunity to lie about his achievements and play the hero. Give him a dark secret—that he isn’t a brainy wunderkind at all, that his test scores were inflated, or that he’s there because of an identity swap, like your fear that you don’t deserve what you have.
See how Freddy’s coming alive now? It’s all thanks to your writerly mental illnesses! You can use this trick with all of your various yearnings and worries—your fear of having your secrets shown to others, your simultaneous fear of dying without having your voice heard, your fear of hurting your family’s feelings, your fear of being seen as a character-torturing sadist, your fear of having your delicate artist soul exposed—all of that good stuff. That is prime humanity right there, rich and raw. And it’s what your readers hope to find in your characters.