Writing Letters: a Marvellous Way to Understand Characters

As a child of the '90s, I'm no stranger to epistolary stories. They were everywhere when I was growing up: Jaclyn Moriarty's Feeling Sorry for Celia, Meg Cabot's Princess Diaries, the enthrallingly haunting Griffin & Sabine; and many, many more.

Stories written in diary and letter form, and all their modern equivalents, consistently come back into style (a trend that goes back centuries), and it's not hard to see why.

These aren't the words of a distant narrator, high in the sky. These are the words of the characters themselves, right in front of us on the page, in all their intimacy.

Naturally, this still leaves plenty of room for drama and suspense. In an epistolary story, we're completely dependent on what the characters choose to share with others and how honest they're prepared to be, even for an audience of one in the pages of a journal.

There are few better ways to hear a character's voice than to observe the letters they write. If you're struggling to truly know them, or how they interact with others, have them write a letter.

“How wonderful it is to be able to write someone a letter! To feel like conveying your thoughts to a person, to sit at your desk and pick up a pen, to put your thoughts into words like this is truly marvelous.”

Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood

What kind of letter might you write to better get to know or understand a character? Here are a few ideas to explore ...

A Letter of Apology

Has the character wronged someone, in the recent or distant past? This is a chance to try and mend fences.

The character might rehash what happened or simply allude to it. They might be defensive or contrite. Have they tried to apologize before, or is this the first time?

Alternatively, this could be a letter refusing to make amends, either on the part of the perpetrator or the wronged party.

A Letter to Reconnect

Has a character been estranged from someone for a long time? Whoever caused the estrangement in the first place, write the letter from this character’s perspective.

Maybe they don’t even intend to send it, and this is just a way to vent their frustration at what happened and what they’ve missed in the intervening years.

Maybe they can’t send it, because they don’t know where the recipient lives or the would-be recipient has passed away.

Or maybe this is the character’s tentative attempt to reach out, to see if the future holds bright possibilities, even though the past can’t be rewritten.

A different approach to this kind of letter could be one detailing why reconnecting is a horrible idea.

A Letter to a Past or Future Self

There's something reassuring about reaching across the vastness of time and space to write a letter to a younger self or seek advice from a future one. Even if your story isn't science fiction and this letter is little more than a theoretical exercise, it can still yield good insights.

A letter to a past self could expose the character's regrets or lessons learned through the course of the story.

A letter to a future self could clarify what's worrying them or has highest priority in their mind at at the moment.

A Letter to Get Someone Out of Trouble

When spoken words fail, the written word may still stand a chance.

When one of your characters is in dire straits, think about who could be appealed to and have another of your characters write that person a letter. Personality and circumstances will dictate how desperate, logical, passionate, or menacing this letter is.

This is a great opportunity to consider various solutions to conflict in the plot, as well as to see who possesses influence and power in the story or how far a character is willing to go on another's behalf.

For another route, try a letter that inadvertently gets the character in even more trouble, or one in which the letter-writer falsely confesses their own guilt.

A Letter to Give Someone Hope

Most stories reach a point where the horizon has darkened and a character's chances of achieving their goal seem dashed for good. Write a letter from their most cherished mentor or the person who's been with them through all the peaks and valleys, a letter where they do their best to help your main character through the storm.

To dive down an unexplored path, why not have the letter-writer be the character who seems least likely to offer a light in the dark? Or, for a darker twist, the letter could be addressed to the antagonist, offering them hope at a key point in the story.

Letters can be one of the most powerful and memorable elements of a story, even one that isn't told wholly in epistolary form. I imagine Captain Wentworth's letter in Persuasion is nearly impossible to recall without a swelling of emotion (and perhaps a swoon?) for many Jane Austen readers.

A letter needn't be stuffed with flowery phrases, spritzed with perfume, or brimming with passionate emotions to be evocative or revealing. It simply has to be true. True to who your character is, how they feel in that moment, and what they need to communicate.

To expand on these ideas or take them in a new direction, here are a few more suggestions:

  • pick a less likely recipient than the most obvious choice
  • look at a few samples of real letters from history
  • if you've written a fulsome letter, try a version with more brevity, and vice versa
  • write first with an emphasis on facts, then the same letter again with an emphasis on emotion
  • write the letter meticulously or as quickly as possible
  • write a response to the letter you've just written

I think it's about time our characters wrote some letters! How about it, creative soul?