he letter began with a simple statement.
“If you’re reading this,” it said, “I’m probably dead.“
A sick feeling ran from the pit of my stomach to the back of my throat as I read that sentence. I wanted to put the letter down, bury it under a stack of papers, burn it, but you don’t just stop reading something like that and pretend you never got it. I kept reading.
You think you know everything that happened—all those days, months, weeks that went by—but you don’t. You don’t have a crystal ball. You aren’t psychic. You can’t know all the reasons I had for doing what I did. And since you’re the one that killed me, it’s only fair that I set you straight.
It went on for about another page, detailing some of the more gruesome parts of a murder and the twisted motive behind it. The writing was full of a familiar biting sarcasm that I was able to ignore only because my pen-pal was right: there were things I hadn’t known, hadn’t really considered, or plain just glossed over in my rush to capture a story. I sat back after finishing the letter and blew out a long, shaky breath, more than a little disturbed.
Which is funny, since I wrote it.
Writing a letter to yourself from your character—in this case, my novel’s villain—is a well-worn trick from a number of writing guides. Originally, the advice seemed about as fresh as starting a novel with the line, “It was a dark and stormy night.” But, when I hit a rough patch trying to flesh out my villain, I gave it a try and found I had a hard time stopping.
Composing it had been a disturbing brush with schizophrenia, but the insights I received were worth it (I think…time will tell if the schizophrenia thing works out). In about five hundred words, I’d done more to give my bad guy dimension and history than any number of sketches, outlines, or navel gazing. I’ve done it several times since, and I think there are tangible benefits in at least three distinct instances:
1. Getting Around First Person
The natural by-product of writing a novel in first person is that your narrative point-of-view, by definition, is incredibly limited. There are few opportunities to show your reader the richness of your characters but, perhaps more damaging, there are few opportunities for you to see your own characters, as well.
Letter writing won’t physically change that in the manuscript, but it will change your perception of the movers and shakers in your tale. By extension, the descriptions of your characters, their philosophies, and even their actions/reactions may become more robust…once you get to know them better.
2. Jump Start
The most common reason I’ve seen for character letter-writing is to work through writer’s block or just plain old uninspired prose. I think it’s sound advice. When the words won’t flow and the cursor is winking back at you from a blank page, start writing that letter. Most of us are natural letter writers and—unfettered by plot concerns or timelines or the intricacies of interacting with other players in your story—you’ll probably find the words spilling out.
A side benefit is that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to write an engaging letter without inhabiting your character’s voice, attitude, and outlook. For a page or two, you are your villain. You can’t buy that kind of help.
3. New Avenues
On the positive side of the Law of Unintended Consequences, getting a letter from one of your characters can lead to new sub-plots, twists, and even endings for your story. If your characters tell you about things you didn’t know—what they did on their off time, how they made that daring escape, that time they drove by the heroine’s house but didn’t break in—these things will start to work their way into the plot, giving you new or richer material to work with.
Next time you find yourself with a stale plot or a blank sheet or simply a desire to learn more about your characters, open up a new document or grab a pen and send a letter to yourself from your favorite alter-ego. You’ll thank yourself later.
Just, please: don’t write back.