Crafting Characters – Writing What You Almost Know

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been writing about characterisation. I’ve talked about using an interview process to help craft a personality for your character, and last week I talked about making sure your character has a realistic backstory.

Last week’s article in particular prompted a great deal of discussion, both in the comments of my post, and over at Anthony Lee Collins blog where he wrote a response. I highly recommend heading over and having a read of all the comments there as well. In the end, I believe that we agreed that characters always need to act in character, and they must have a story arc that makes rational sense. However, that story doesn’t necessarily have to be plotted in advance, or even revealed to the reader during the course of the story.

This (probably) last post about crafting characters has been prompted by a discussion at Laura Stanfill’s blog, about writing what you don’t know.

“Write what you know” is one of those phrases you hear all the time. It’s often interpreted to mean that you should only write about places, events, and situations that you’ve experienced. But there are many areas of writing where that interpretation is not only limiting, it’s completely impractical. If writers only wrote about things they knew from experience, there would be a lot less crime fiction out there, for one thing. Or a lot more serial-killing authors. Take your pick. I won’t even go into the difficulties inherent in writing sci-fi and fantasy. (Although, on the positive side, there would be no Twilight…)

When it comes to writing characters, you’ll definitely be writing what you don’t know. And that’s okay. You don’t need to have been a cop to write a police procedural. You don’t need to know how to dance to write about a ballet company. You don’t need to have pointy ears to write about an elf. You just need to do your research.

But there’s one thing you do need to know, and that’s the emotional state you’re writing about. You you need to have something to draw upon and extrapolate. If the emotions of your character don’t seem real, it’s hard for a reader to believe that anything else is real.

You don’t have to experience the same events as your character, but you do need to channel the right emotion. Most of us can find emotional correlations in our own lives if we try hard enough. (And if you can’t, maybe it’s not an emotion you should be writing about. Have you ever gone back to read some of your “highly emotional” writing from when you were a pre-teen? Point proved.)

For example:

A serial killer is on the loose, and your character thinks he may have killed her parents. Cast your mind back to that time you got lost in the shopping centre when you were 7, and you thought you were never going to see your parents again. Remember how SCARED you felt.

Your character has to betray one trust to keep another. Cast your mind back to that time you stole a pack of gum to impress your friends, and then lay awake in bed that night thinking about it. Remember how GUILTY you felt.

A tidbit of information falls into your character’s lap and she desperately wants to investigate, even though she knows it’s dangerous. Cast your mind back to when you were a child looking at the gifts under the Christmas tree, and all you wanted in the world was to take a peek inside and find out what they were. Remember how CURIOUS you felt.

You’ll have your own memories to draw upon. Usually we do it automatically when we’re writing, without even thinking about where we get the inspiration to write about grief, pain, heartache, excitement, or surprise. But if you’re having trouble describing the emotional state of your character, try doing this exercise consciously.

Do you use this method? What other ideas do you have to get your characters in the mood?


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7 responses to “Crafting Characters – Writing What You Almost Know

  1. Wonderful post, Jo! I really loved how you brought emotions into our discussion about writing what you don’t know, and I’m so glad you expanded on it here. This is all so true.

    One of the major problems with my first novel was due to staying too close to the reality of what I felt as a 20-something woman living in a new state, versus using those emotions to create a totally new scenario. It wasn’t autobiographical, but the plot was slowed by me trying to convey things I was really feeling right then.

    My next book did exactly what you’re talking about, using my emotions to draw my characters, who are all completely different from me. My new novel needs a big dose of emotion, honestly. It’s sort of historical comedy, and there’s a lightness about it that I love, but I also need to bring readers closer to my protagonist.

    • I think we’ve all been guilty of trying to put too much of our own feelings into a work of fiction – I certainly know I have. I think that using your own emotions works best when there’s a distance between the you doing the writing, and the you feeling the negative emotion. Unless, of course, you’re writing an autobiography…

      Your new novel sounds so interesting!

      • Very true, Jo! That first novel was a way to deal with certain emotions, rather than tell a story for its own purpose. Still, I’m glad I wrote it (and it earned me an agent, so hey, it did have some redeeming qualities!).

        My new novel makes me so happy! I just hope the actual manuscript lives up to what’s in my head. The first draft won’t, but maybe with another pass or two, I’ll be satisfied enough to send out some queries. I feel surer of the story than I ever have–it’s just the character piece that needs solidifying. I’ll have to remember to come back to your series of posts when I get into deeper character work in the next draft.

  2. My only characters so far have been regular folk, not serial killers or folks with wildly aberrant personalities, so if I need a jerk, I’ll think about someone I’ve met and make my character “that kind of jerk”. It’s quite satisfying to have another character tell them off.

    In my current WIP, my character HATES someone. It’s hilarious, to me, to have them verbally abuse each other. Yes, I put my fictional critters in a cage and let them fight it out.

    For accessing emotion — that’s a tough one. For me, thinking about something in the past can really bring me back into it. Writing about a frightening car accident, even though it’s fictional, can have me shaking and crying during the first draft. (This is embarrassing when I’m in a coffee shop.) Writing about falling in love with some cute guy leaves me feeling sheepishly guilty. (I’m married! Gosh!) It’s hard to do bad things to my character, because it hurts me. But, oh, do I feel smart when I work for an hour on dialog and come up with a quippy comeback. 🙂

    • Isn’t it great that when you’re writing, you can use that witty comeback days (or weeks) after you needed it, seamlessly inserting it into the conversation as though you had it worked out all along? If only I could do that in real life as well…

      I actually really enjoying writing when I’ve got such a high emotional investment that I’m laughing or crying as I write. Those are the good times.

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