“How do I get an oyster cracker out of my nose?”

The little quivering voice of my four-year-old son drifted from his car seat in the van.

“Dad, how…do I…get an oyster cracker…out of my nose?”

The wide, teary eyes that met my glance in the rearview mirror twisted my heart. He was trying to be so brave, but his chin  trembled ever so slightly. Help me was written on his delicate face.

He needed me.

As I pushed back against my urge to wax eloquent about the poor choice that led to the cracker’s ending up lodged in his nostril, I opened his door and told him, “How did you…? I mean…we’ll get it out little buddy.” So I peered up the nose hole in question, but saw nothing. I wanted to ask him if he was sure there was an oyster cracker up there, but I realized that this was no training exercise. This was the real thing. So I pinched the free-flowing side of his nose shut and said, “blow.”

Out came the cracker.

Then he looked at me, relief pulling the corners of his perfect little mouth into a smile. “Thanks, Dad.”

“You’re welcome, son,” I said. “Let’s not put anymore crackers in your nose. Okay?”

He agreed.

What does this cranium cramming cracker caper have to do with writing? Something very important: I put myself in my four-year-old son’s shoes. I felt the worry–fear, even–from his perspective. I got into his head (though not through his unblocked nostril) and imagined what the experience was like through his eyes. The fear. The discomfort. The guilt (he knew he’d done something wrong). The the relief.

I try to live inside the heads of my characters when they appear on stage in the current chapter I’m writing. Many times this vicarious journey is a joy, and other times it is uncomfortable. I’ve tried to imagine the mindset of killers and cops, men and women driven by love, hate, loyalty, revenge, and dozens of other passions. It’s draining and exhilarating at the same time. I may not be able to agree with their motives or actions, but I want to know them. Well. There are great tools avaliable to help writers prepare a character interview of each major character. These aid a writer in getting in the skin of their characters.

I want to paint my characters so vividly that my readers can feel the villain’s stare on the back of their neck, or hear the beat of the endangered heroine heart in their own chest. I want a reader to think, I’ll help you…or…I’ll stop him. In other words, I want my characters to live in the imaginations of my readers. I want the characters to be so believable that my readers feel as if they know them. Or would really want to. Or, perhaps–in the case of an evil character–fear they might meet him.

Have you ever encountered a character in a book that you just couldn’t get out of your mind?

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10 Comments

Filed under Christian Fiction, Christian Growth, Christian Life, editing, Larry W. Timm, reading, Writing

10 responses to ““How do I get an oyster cracker out of my nose?”

  1. Great post, Larry! It’s important that we get inside all of our characters’ heads. Even our “bad” ones. One-dimensional characters don’t engage our readers.

    One other note: Wondering just where your son got the idea with the cracker. Usually children imitate their parents. Hmmmm. Just where do you keeo YOUR crackers, Larry?

  2. Kids. No wonder we love them! Great post. And yes, I’ve had some characters whose heads were easy to gain access to, and others, not so easy. One psychopath was easy because I knew what his childhood was like. Even as an adult he could never rise to his father’s expectations. Altho never agreeing to his deeds, I could certainly sympathize with his past.

    Good post!

  3. What a fun little story, especially as it all “blew over.” I know I’ve nailed my character when he or she takes over my life.

    And as far as characters who get to me…they’re never perfect, often frustrating but have a heroic sense. Scarlett O’Hara or any from Jodi Picoult. Make them funny and then I’m sure to love them–Devil Wears Prada or Shopaholic.

  4. Mary L. Gessner

    Love the cracker story. And, I agree. It’s necessary to actually get inside our characters (I’ll resist the urge to make a pun here), but I find it’s sometimes difficult to easily back out of some characters, once I’m really inside their head/ thinking, and switch to another character. Anyone else struggle with that problem? Just wondering.

    • Mary, sometimes one character really impacts me–such as a really evil villian–but usually I can switch from one character to another if I’m able to stay focused on the flow of the scene. My attention span is known to wander, however. 🙂

  5. What a wonderful true story–made me laugh, but also brought tears to my eyes, somehow. I guess your compassionate response to your son reminded me of how God responds to us when we get into trouble and cry out to Him. But wonderful analogy for writing also–I too have noticed what a difference it makes to see things through a character’s eyes–even someone who isn’t altogether likable–and have thought about how it should relate to real life, too.

    • Thanks, Kiersti, for taking time to pass on words on encouragement. You are so right about God’s compassionate love for His children. And you’re also right to point out how much better our characters come across on the page when we’ve spent time in their heads. Blessings to you on your writing journey.

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