One of the great pleasures in meeting new people is trying to figure out who they are beneath the narrative they’re giving of themselves. I love to pay attention to the small insights people give into who they really are without meaning to. Someone may not tell me they’re anxious, but I notice the way their words run together or the way they fixate on a problem. Someone may not tell me they’re in love, but I see how they glowingly describe another guest across the room. Someone may not tell me they have a troubled relationship with their sibling, but their silence suggests a larger story than the one they’re telling.
It can be tempting when writing fiction to simply let your characters speak for themselves and tell you (and the reader) who they are. But there is a deep satisfaction in seeing past what a character will admit and grasping the truths they might not willingly volunteer. One of my tried and true writing exercises is to imagine a character in a situation in which she must introduce herself—at a party, a class, a date, a funeral, the first day at a new job. The challenge is to reveal elements of the character that she isn’t intending to disclose. What issues are so pressing in her mind that they slip out? Does she follow any tangents? Betray any secrets? What subjects does she avoid? What details about herself does she play up and why? What words does she use? What does she sound like? Who is the person she is working to present and who is the person peering out from underneath?
- Naima Coster
About the Author
Naima Coster lives in Brooklyn. Her work has been published in The New York Times, Guernica and The Sunday Times, among others. She was awarded the Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize from the Brooklyn Film & Arts Festival for her personal essay "Remembering When Brooklyn Was Mine" in The New York Times. Her debut HALSEY STREET was a Finalist for the 2018 Kirkus Prize for Fiction and longlisted for the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award. Naima’s second novel WHAT’S MINE AND YOURS is a New York Times bestseller.