Do You Become Your Characters? by Chris Longmuir
One of the fiction writer’s jobs is to create characters, and I’m sure we all do it in different ways. Some writers create a biography for their character before they ever put pen to paper to write their story. Some writers may model their characters on people they know, taking a little bit here and another bit there and amalgamating them into a new character. Some writers start the book first and let the character grow out of the narrative. I could go on and on.
However, it was something Cally Phillips said in a recent blog which was ‘walk a mile in their shoes’ in order to understand someone, and this applies to characters as well as people.
Anyway, Cally’s comment got me to thinking, because when I’m creating characters I like to get inside their heads, and I like to walk in their shoes. Oh, I do all the other things as well, but there’s nothing quite like getting inside someone’s head to really get to know them.
Mind you, a lot of my writing can be scary and my characters are not always likeable, so the inside of their heads is not a comfortable place to be.
Take the Night Watcher, for example. I lurked in dark corners with him, spied on his chosen one, and shared his delusions. Inside his head was a really scary place to be and if I had exhibited schizoid tendencies when I was writing this, it wouldn’t have been surprising. Julie, the main character in this book started out as a nice person, and I shared her grief when she lost her husband. The self harming wasn’t particularly nice, but it was part of who she was and how she coped. But then she became so eaten up with thoughts of revenge on the woman who stole her husband and ultimately led him to his death, she changed. She had some rather nasty thoughts, and I became involved in the psychological games she played on Nicole, who was the other woman. Nicole was selfish, ambitious, and liked other women’s husbands, but she also had her vulnerabilities. So, all in all, none of them were very pleasant heads to be in.
Kara, in Dead Wood, was another head it wasn’t always comfortable to be in. I was with her in the woods with the serial killer and shared her fear and despair. I ran from Tony’s thugs as well as the killer, and understood her desperate need to rescue her children from the care system, which was something that kept her tied to
Then there’s Bill Murphy, who appears in Night Watcher and Dead Wood. I was there with him in the snake room as well as his own neglected flat. I shared his despondency, his heartburn, his doubts and fears.
You would think that Belle’s head in A Salt Splashed Cradle would be a nicer place to be, because it’s a historical saga and Amazon promotes it in their newsletters as a romance. Well I suppose it is a romance, just not a very soft, sweet one. So back to Belle’s head, if you think it would be nice to be there, you’d be wrong. You see Belle has her problems. She wants the romance and the happy ever after, but it’s not in her nature to have that. So I shared her ostracism by the villagers, her sexual encounters with the Laird’s son, and lots of other stuff. Then there was Jimmie, her husband. I sailed with him on the fishing boat and then the whaler. I sailed to the Arctic seas with him, climbed the masts, furled and unfurled the sails. I chased whales with him, shivered with him, shared his frostbite, and his love for Belle. And of course, there’s Sarah, who cannot understand why her mother does not love her.
Then there’s my short stories. I’m not even going to go there, too scary.
So I come back to my original question – Do you become your characters? Or do your characters become you? Oh, and how do you get back out of their heads again without losing your mind?