+ Understanding Your Characters
As writers we tend to think that we are in control of our characters, and to a degree we are. We spend time building them, putting them in tough situations, and basically attempting to ruin them. We’re actually not very nice to them at all, yet we end up feeling such affinity for them. It’s a natural part of the process, but not all characters are created equally.
The idea of understanding your characters goes beyond backstory and bio. It goes beyond character growth and personality change. Understanding your characters means getting into their heads, which is something that most writers waver on.
Let me ask you a dark question. Have you ever sat alone for an hour with no distractions and though what it would be like to choke somebody to death? The very idea of allowing our brains to go there, much less rest their for an hour, is repugnant to most of us, but to fully understand our characters, it’s exactly what we have to sometimes do. As writers, we have to be willing to feel our characters pains and pleasures before they do.
The imagination is a powerful tool; it’s almost as powerful as first-hand experience, but many of us tend to run from it when it threatens to encroach on our control. We love to imagine settings and scenarios, but we often shy away from delving into the deep emotional crevices that change our characters from good to great.
I’ve never lost a child, but if I was writing a character who just lost a child, I would have to try and understand what that character is going through. I could throw out a few generic paragraphs about sobbing and denial and such, and they may even be moving, but they would not be honest. The other option is to steal away for a bit and imagine what it would be like…to wrap myself in it. I’ve actually done this specific exercise, and it was a grueling experience, but I came out with two results. Firstly, I have a grasp of the pain and torment that comes with losing a child. I’m not saying I fully understand that. Only those who have actually experience it could ever really know, but I’ve put a lot of effort into understanding it. This limited understanding helped me better understand a character I was working on. Secondly, it made me cherish my children more than I already did.
Method actors have a similar process in which they live, as best they can, the lives of their characters. It takes dedication, but they are always the characters we remember and the actors we praise. Method writing (perhaps a new phrase) can do the same for your characters. Just like with actors, it takes dedication from the author to put yourself through the emotions involved. No one wants to admit to spending hours imagining what it’s like to eat another human, but without that level of dedication we likely would not love Hannibal Lecter as much as we do as a character.
A word of wisdom however – if you find yourself getting lost in these exercises, then step back and grab onto reality. The imagination is a wonderful playground, but it can quickly turn into a dangerous battlefield for the unprepared mind.