Disclaimer time: I garnered quite a lot of my writing process from Robert J. Ray’s very excellent The Weekend Novelist. There are a couple versions of the book–the older one begins with character development while the newer begins with plot. I keep both versions handy because a) sometimes my stories come from a character idea but other times with a plot idea, and b) I prefer the plot development work from the second book. So my process tends to be a mashup of the two books, while involving a mish-mosh of other tricks learned over the years from other books or training.
In developing character, I’m always searching for the things that make them people, real and breathing. Sometimes it’s a combination of factors, but other times it’s one, shining thing or moment that makes a character resonate into personhood. One of the most valuable tools I’ve learned from The Weekend Novelist is the character dream. This is a neat bit of “hot writing” exercise that produces stunning results, being half-brain storming and half-drafting.
I write a dream for each character that may or may not end up in my manuscript in some form or other. In Keepers #1 one of my character dreams morphed into flashback that then mirrored my climatic fight scene, while another became another scene where my main character struggled with a choice soon thereafter.
In Keepers #2 a character dream became a portent from the Voudon Loa, while in Big Dang Projeckt my main character’s dream will (eventually) become the revelation of his past and connection with the Big Bad. As my protagonist suffers from nightmares, I can intersperse the imagery leading up to the reveal. This reveal will result in his moment of choice that kick starts the end of the novel.
It’s an easy enough excercise, and one that often sparks other ideas. I always do this long land, and hope like all get out I can read my writing later. You may always want to keep a highlighter handy.
First, I’ll meditate on the character I’m writing a the dream for, maybe go over their profile and other notes for a few minutes until I feel like I’m in their head. Sometimes I already I have an idea for a dream and if/how I want to incorporate it into the final story. Other times I’m working completely from scratch.
When I feel like I’m in a good mindset, I begin with a simple statement: “In the dream, he/she:” and take off from there. Keep the hand moving, leave that dread infernal editor in the dust. It’s ESSENTIAL not to go back and edit. Just keep going until you reach a good end point, or you’ve done between 10-15 minutes of steady writing. If I get stuck, I just go back to my beginning start-statement and keep going.
Then I grab a highlighter or two and start highlighting or circling images that repeat. Sometimes it’ll be colors, or sensations. This is why you never want to edit while drafting–you WANT to find this stuff. This is where the meat is. In Big Dang Projeckt, one of my character’s dreams provided the imagery for my beginning and ending scenes. You could even, potentially, try looking up some of the imagery in a dream analysis book to see what it says about your character. At the very least, writing dreams will tap into your characters’ subsconscious, and may even bring to light things you didn’t know about them before.
In the end, dreams are one of those things that make us uniquely human. They can do the same for characters.
Okay, guys, time to weigh in–do you recall dreams being used effectively in books, TV, or movies? How about ineffectively? Discuss!