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 Dundee and was ultimately her undoing. Sharing her street walking experiences, her run in with the serial killer, and her panic at being hunted by Tony’s thugs was distinctly uncomfortable.
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?
Amazon UK



Chris Longmuir said…
When I wrote this blog Night Watcher was only available as an ebook, however, over the last week it has become available in paperback form as well.
Susan Price said…
Lovely blog, Chris. I know what you're talking about. I've spent a lot of time staring vacantly into space, while in my head desperate things are going on; and I'm asking the questions: What would it really be like to feel this? How, honestly, would I react in these circumstances. I doubt if anyone but another writer would believe me, but it can be very hard work!
Excellent post, Chris, with which I can SO identify, right now - having finished one novel and still with the characters tugging at me - but with another one calling to me. I must admit I never write a 'character bio' although I know some writers find it very helpful. I kind of write the book or the play to find out about them. There's usually a lot I don't know, and I find it out in the course of writing and rewriting the book. I must admit too that they are quite definitely alive for me. They exist as surely as anyone in the real world. Which is why I find it faintly disturbing, no, let's face it, VERY disturbing when somebody says 'why not make him/her do this or that' because I never 'make' them do anything. They do what they do. And sometimes I realise that I HAVE made them do something and they are resisting like mad!
Jan Needle said…
there's a wonderful story by the wonderful marcel ayme in which a writer called martin develops a bad habit of killing off his characters. everyone - critics, publishers, fans - complains about it, but he can't stop himself. one day he's approaching the end of his latest novel, struggling to stop himself killing his beautiful young heroine, when there's a knock at his front door. it is she - to plead in person to be spared. i can't go on. too painful. but we all know where he was coming from, n'est-ce pas?
Chris Longmuir said…
There is another problem of course, and that's the eviction notice you have to serve at the end of the book. How do you get them to go?

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