How To Get Your Characters Talking (With Letters)

Epistolary means ‘in the form of letters’. The genre Epistolary fiction in literature refers to a story told through the medium of documents, mostly letters, written by one or more characters.

The genre is said to have originated in the late 15th century, by a form of novels in which third person narrative was accompanied by inserted letters. Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s The Sorrow of Young Werther (translated from German), Frances Brooke’s The History of Montague are some of the earliest successful works in epistolary form.

Imagine this: Ten or so years from now, you find yourself navigating through your old saved boxes and drawers which have not been opened for years. You open them to find a collection of letters, all say from a single person written to you (need not be someone you were/are romantically involved with). How do you feel reading them, one by one?

Now, think of this: After a long tiresome day, you come back to your apartment. You’re alone. You make a cup of tea, and sit down to write a correspondence. A letter or email to someone. You continue this ritual, every day for a long time, depicting each and every important and not so important thing happening with you.

The two scenarios above are very different from each other. But they both are evocative. In one of the all time, ‘To kill a Mockingbird’, Harper Lee says:

“You never really understand a person, until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Epistolary does that! When you’re reading/writing a work of fiction, you tend to visualize the flow of story like it is happening in front of you. But, when you’re reading/writing epistolary, you become the character who is the part of the story.

You no longer remain are the audience who is looking at a picture from outside, rather you are one in the frame! Take ‘ The Perks of Being a Wallflower’ by Stephen Chbosky as an example, which is a coming-of-age epistolary novel. It starts off with Charlie writing letters to an unknown recipient. As it’s written in first person, you become the part of story and reader goes through all the things that comes in the way of ‘growing up’.

That’s what epistolary imagination level is. Yes, it does depend on what place letters hold in your personal life. For some, it also acts an agent which fills the gap of face to face conversations.

Even the silver screen has some great stories which make this theme lovable. For example, ‘You’ve Got Mail, wherein Joe and Kathleen, find the love of their lives in each other, not by meeting, but only through written communication to each other.

Or, ‘The Lunchbox’, where Ila and Saajan get unusually connected through exchange of letters, even though the first one is sent by mistake.

Both of these are strong proofs that you may not meet a person, and yet be awestruck by them. Literature in the form of letters, is far more intimate and passionate than any other form.

As a writer, it gives you depth, allowing the development of characters, as you make them a part of your letters. Unique and distinct ways of looking at things and penning them down in a correspondence. There is no remnant of the sense of ‘superficiality’ in epistolary. It goes way beyond what stays on the surface.

The easiness of conversation cannot leave you untouched like other forms of prose. It has to make you think exactly like the characters involved, and brood what would you do, or feel if you were in their skins. You tend to look at the flow of content or story with your eyes like they’re happening to you, like you’re them or are living with them.

The freedom of thought the characters have in this form can be immensely indulging and challenging — and that is why this form can appeal to writers who love to explore their imagination and conduct experiments. It enhances vision of the writer, and makes the reader much more empathetic, resulting into a feeling of unparalleled connection. And why is it important? As J.K Rowling said,

Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathise with humans whose experiences we have never shared.

As a reader, it gives you the feeling of stumbling upon bittersweet feelings, like they’re your own. And, as a writer, well.. as a writer you need to know how would you feel if you read the stuff you write. That way, you have a free flowing way empathy, with the contents and characters you create on one side, and with the person who reads your work.

How do you create an exchange between characters though letters?

  1. Build a relationship between two characters or more. It could be one character writing to more than one character or receiving letters from more than one character. However, exchange between two characters is recommended. Also, it’s not a diary entry, it’s a letter, write it in that form. Not every letter though needs to start with ‘Dear XYZ,’
  2. Decide the subject/theme and frequency of the exchange of letters. Create a roadmap so it becomes easier to execute your idea. What exactly do these characters want to share and why? Figure this out.
  3. Go through other written works to get inspiration and discover what suits your style. Start writing!

So, if you’re the one who wishes to dive to a greater depth- epistolary is for you! Post your poem/series on YourQuote and write like never before!

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