You’re writing a novel. One of your characters is not right. Let’s call her Sara. You can feel it, but you’re not sure what’s wrong. Sara’s dialog doesn’t sound like her. She’s doing things that don’t make sense. Is she who you thought she was?

Does any of this sound familiar? Do you have questions like:

What would Sara really do in this situation? Why? What does Sara really care about?

It’s not that you don’t know Sara at all, but as the story developed, she did something unexpected, and now you’re disoriented.

Wouldn’t it be great if you could invite your characters out for a beer or a glass of wine and get them to let their hair down so you could really get to know them?

Recently, I’ve been doing just that.

Bear with me. This may sound crazy, but it’s a practical technique you can learn. “Use The Force, Luke.” Call it guided meditation, lucid dreaming, self-hypnosis, or even shamanism or drug induced tripping; all these techniques work in a similar fashion. And yes, they do work.

I’ve used self-hypnosis for years as a stress reliever and to focus on things both internal and in the real world that needed my attention, for example, a particularly sticky problem of software design. But for some reason I’ve not, until recently, applied self-hypnosis as a tool to solve my writing problems.

I’m not going to try to teach you how to hypnotize yourself. There are books, websites, and other sources to learn on your own, or you can contact a professional hypnotist and ask them teach you the technique. I will say that the biggest problem in learning self-hypnosis (and probably other techniques for entering an altered state) is that they seem so simple that when you first start you may not believe anything is happening. The “secret” to becoming skilled is practice. Try including your practice in your daily routine, say just before you sit down to write. Spend just ten or fifteen minutes a day.

I always assume every character in every piece I write lives in my unconscious universe. Once I’ve entered into that universe using self-hypnosis, I wander around for a few minutes till I find Sara sitting in a bar she’s known to frequent, or working away at her job, or relaxing at home, and I talk to her. She has to talk to me. After all, she’s from my own life and mind. And like all conversations, it pays to attend closely to the things she says and how she says it.

Hang out with your characters and learn what they’re all about. It works. Really.