Given that I’ve become nearly obsessed over the past few months by journals and the keeping of them, no one should be surprised by my desire to work them into my character’s lives.
A character’s journal could easily be an important plot object, and not just in a “love interest finds her diary” kind of way; but they don’t have to be, either. Just mentioning it in passing adds to a character’s richness by giving us a glimpse of their routine. Or their not-routine, if someone means to be keeping a journal but only writes in it when they’re distraught, pouring out their emotions; or if they’re forgetful and they simply can’t establish the habit. All of those things say something about the person you’re creating.
Actually getting to read the character’s journal can take the reader a step further inside their brain. In Life Is Strange (no spoilers, I promise), the journal entries serve a functional purpose in recording the events of the previous episodes, so you can look back and remember the choices you made in-game; but they’re also another layer to Max’s distinctive, compelling voice. You see the scenes play out, but then, reading her journal later, you get below her surface actions and reactions, into her feelings. (I cannot say enough about how brilliant the structure and storytelling were in that game. Play it. Even if you’re not a gamer, just to pull it apart and look at it as an example of teenage characters written well, time manipulation done without inconsistency, narrative flow around player choice, and OMG FORESHADOWING.)
So, some prompts on the extra depths of meaning journals can give your characters:
- Which of your characters would keep a journal, and which wouldn’t? Of those who do, would they be art journals or diaries? Or maybe the hyper-organization of a bullet journal? A synthesis of more than one type?
- Is keeping the journal a habit, a fixed part of their day? Morning, evening, or whenever they can squeeze in the time? Do they write a page a day, or however much or little they want to?
- What does the journal look like? A plain notebook, so no one at school or work suspects it’s anything personal, or a fancy leather-bound journal hung with charms, or bound with a lock or clasp?
- Do they keep their journal with them all the time to jot down notes in it, or to write whenever they have a moment, or does it stay in one place, like a home office or a bedroom?
- Is the journal a physical object at all? Does your character bare their soul on a social media site instead? If so, under their real name, or a handle? Are their readers/followers people they know offline, and if they’re not, what would happen if someone they knew in “real life” found this online space of theirs?
- If you need help exploring a character’s emotional response to a plot point, try writing a journal entry about it in their voice. What could they express in a private space like a journal that they wouldn’t say to someone else?