Thursday, December 10, 2009

Check Your Emotions

One thing you, as a writer, have to keep in mind is that you are not your characters. Each character may have bits and pieces of you, but not all of you, unless you’re writing your memoir. And certainly every character can’t be you.

That means you have to look outside yourself, imagine what it’s like to be that person. Imagine what it feels like when bad or good things happen to that character. Imagine what it’s like to live in a country or culture you’ve never been in. To be religious when you’re not. To eat meat when you won’t. To free fall from a plane when you can’t. To be what you aren’t.

That’s a big part of your job as a writer. To be successful as a writer, your readers have to believe you must know what it is to have lost a child to a serial killer or to force yourself to go to a job interview even though you’ve got the flu from Hades or to be a substitute teacher in front of 22 seniors who throw spitballs and refuse to listen.

You can’t say, oh, I’d never get out of bed if I lost a child… or I’d run out of the office if I threw up in the boss’s lap… or I would take control and have those teens eating out of my hand in ten minutes. You have to envision what your character would do and feel.

You have to check your emotions and write what your characters would do and feel. And if you’ve never experienced what your characters are going through, then you need to step into their skin and imagine - or talk to someone who knows what it’s like firsthand.
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29 comments:

  1. That last line is great advice - find someone who's gone through it! I did just that for the two main characters in the last book of my series, because I'd never experienced a life like theirs. It helped me with some of the day to day activities, too.

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  2. Maybe this is one of the reasons that most writers I know enjoy people watching opportunities. It is the fun part of being a writer – experiencing events you never have (and some I hope I never will) and getting to be someone you’re not, if only for a few hours a day.

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  3. Excellent point! What's so funny for me is, I like the idea of being something I'm not. The chance to explore all things that I would never have the guts to do or say.

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  4. This is the best part of writing for me! I love the different people and figuring out how they would react in different situations. So much fun!

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  5. This is why writing is so much fun! It's like playing dress-up.

    Elizabeth
    Mystery Writing is Murder

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  6. to me, this is the heart of being a writer - daring to believe that my reactions to events aren't the only possible ones. Come to think of it - that's why I like my therapy practice too - same thing. My best friend and I know this man through our church who, when his mother passed away, put her in the fridge. He lived with her and just got overwhelmed. It was a big to do in the city where we live and work but really, I can perfectly imagine doing such an insane thing. Being a writer allows me to lovingly go where I hope I wouldn't or where I'd love to!

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  7. I like that story, Jan. Your first reactions, is ... no way. Then when you stop to think, you can understand that it could happen. Or maybe that's the writer is each of us. We allow ourselves to feel and think and reason outside of our own selves and our own beliefs.

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  8. That's why I like research, finding the authenticity to give to a story. I find too that the more I learn about a situation, or occupation, the more information it gives me to build a story, opening up ideas to move the plot toward.

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  9. This is wonderful, Helen! I love creating characters and haveing to breathe through their lungs. I learn so much and I'm able to relate better to different types of people and places. Such wonderful advice too: we are not our characters but they do carry with them parts of us.

    Happy Thursday,
    Jen

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  10. Getting into character is like playing make-believe with your BFF. Only you get to be your character and the one your best friend would be. It's the most fun part of writing for me.

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  11. This is a great post for me. Because of my childhood, I didn't play pretend games, at least that I can remember. Playing dress up--I love it.
    Karen

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  12. Jane you're absolutely right about the people watching. LOL

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  13. Very good admonition and advice, here. Something I run across lots in editing novice authors - all the characters act and feel the same as if they were all clones of one person, that being the author - not a very realistic world to create.

    Marvin D Wilson

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  14. A great reminder here, Helen. I often think about actors and how they 'become' their character. As writers, we have to switch back and forth between several-even more difficult.

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  15. This part of writing is why I'm very grateful for my acting experience. Getting into other people's heads is not a problem for me. I know my characters and I have no difficulty writing their reactions and their dialogue. Thanks heavens for acting!

    Elspeth

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  16. One of the challenges of writing...to step outside yourself...

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  17. As a reader, I hate stories that don't offer insight into the protagonist.

    As a writer, I can't imagine a character without asking 'why'. I usually find empathy in the answer, even when they make bad choices.

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  19. This is such valuable advice. Since I began writing I have been truly watching people. There are so many visual clues - bitten nails, perfect crease in the trousers, etc that can tell you so much about your character. I feel guilty sometimes about how much I steal with my eyes from unknown people who later emerge as characters. Thanks as always for your great blog.

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  20. This reminds me of the Atticus Finch quote (To Kill a Mockingbird)

    "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."

    I try to keep that in mind when writing.

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  22. Jen, I like the idea of breathing through your character's lungs.

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  23. Wonderful tips, Helen. I think it is so hard for us to step into strange shoes and walks an unfamiliar path. And I had to laugh when you wrote "I'd never get out of bed if I lost a child." I say that all the time when I am telling people about my book, One Small Victory, and the courage of the central character who has lost her son. Maryann Miller would not get out of bed for a year if she lost a child, but Jenny Jasik has the courage to do that and more. It was really hard for me to keep myself out of this and let Jenny do what she needed to do.

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  25. I had a teacher that said you should never write what you don't know. I asked him how Orwell wrote 1984.

    Good post, great topic. Writers must learn to think and experience OUT of their own reality to creative characters that aren't two dimensional.

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  26. Great advice! Would you have some tips on how to make characters speak like real persons?

    Really Angelic

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  27. I don't have a problem putting myself in my characters shoes. What I have a problem with is actually writing what I imagine they'd do, as in, stuff that's not socially acceptable. I have real inner editor issues around "what people will think of me if I write THAT." LOL. It's so dumb, yet I struggle with that every time I write something sexy or violent, cruel or non-PC.

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  28. enjoy people watching opportunities. It is the fun part of being a writer – experiencing events you never have (and some I hope I never will) and getting to be someone you’re not, if only for a few hours a day.

    Work from home India

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  29. Opulently I agree but I dream the collection should acquire more info then it has.

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