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.
“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.)
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?