Making It Real –As They Live And Breathe
Sorry this is late. I just woke up late after date-night with husband. I think it’s part of the changes of this second-maturity that we have to figure out ways to relate to each other again. Being that we’re both workaholics, we’d never actually see each other, if we didn’t make it a point to take time off together. So, date night once or twice a week. It usually involves walking in the park, or going to a museum. Might or might not involve dinner, but involves going somewhere that serves coffee and tea. And talking plots, because we’re workaholics and Dan is going to Nanowrimo.
Anyway… so. Characters and how to make them real.
I’ll start by saying that I’m the least qualified person to teach you this, so if you don’t get some things, you should go ahead and ask, or say it’s somewhat different for other people.
You see, characters are the one thing I get for free. Only they probably aren’t. I probably learned to create characters through my lonely and bed-ridden childhood, by having not just imaginary friends but entire imaginary families and once a city, all with different personalities, because who wants to play with herself forever. (Don’t answer that. Also, go wash your mind out with bleach. That’s not what I meant.)
However I’ve been in and out (I confess mostly out) of writers’ groups for twenty years, and I’ve taught so many workshops I’ve forgotten some, as well as having a number of mentees, so I am somewhat aware of how other people do this, and of tricks to get there.
Today we’re going to talk about how your characters aren’t like you, or aren’t necessarilly like you. One of the biggest idiocies in writing is to condemn first-person writing (like the Wally did) because you assume someone writing first person is just writing themselves. That is, in a way, a triumph in the story teller’s art that their character is so real they think it’s you. (No, I’m not Athena. That girl has issues that have come home carrying issues.)
However, it is a normal failing, and not just of newbie writers, and not just in first person, that you either think the character is you, or you bleed your opinions into the character even when they’re supposed to be the opposite.
What I mean is, for instance, I’ve seen writers who are lecturers in college trying to write someone who is … oh, a dishwasher repairman, say. They invariably write this person as slow witted, or simple, or prejudiced, or–
This is a college professor’s view of dishwasher repairmen, and not how dishwasher repairmen would view themselves. And it’s perfectly possible to write a smart and resourceful and non-bigoted dishwasher repairman. Not being bookish doesn’t mean you’re sub-human, and many people who had no interest in tertiary education and counted themselves lucky to escape the enforced bookish learning of high school are highly observant, very good at spatial and mechanical reasoning, and THEY would think college professors are boring, a little mad, and bigoted in their own way.
It’s normal and human to judge others by what we are. But just because someone fails in your area, you shouldn’t write them as dunces. At any rate, even if they were, they wouldn’t THINK OF THEMSELVES as dunces. But there is such an infinite variety of processing in the human mind that it’s impossible to say where dumb starts and just “really different” begins.
For a number of years my best friend was a physicist. (I’m not sure we’re friends anymore, not because I don’t want to be, but because she’s closed herself off. There are reasons. But it doesn’t make it easier. This too feeds into characters, and to this also we’ll come back later.) She often could explain things I didn’t get in magazines and scientific reports, and translate it in layman’s terms. And then one day I handed her an article in Reason which struck me as particularly significant. I think it was on literary criticism. She handed it back, because she said her mind didn’t bend that way and she couldn’t get it past the opening paragraph. It was gibberish. And then I had to translate it.
Which means, if you write a character who processes differently from you, respect that character. Imbue it with good qualities. Try to look at the world through HIS eyes. No one is perfect, and no one has the exact same preferences as you.
So, let’s start. Some people interview characters for the role they want. That’s fine if that’s how you do it. If you’re like me there’s no story without character, and story starts with “first there is pain, which drives the character, which drives the plot.” And then I usually write a few chapters in which I’m getting to know the character, and after which I mostly discard those chapters and start again.
Either way let’s say you have a character who is different from you. Learn them. Study how they’ll react. If they’re really very different from you, in a station in life/profession you’ve never tried, you might have to hit the net and look at blogs by people like your character. As you do, try to get in their heads. This is, I think, akin to being a method actor. You start where you are and think yourself into a character.
Say you’re a city person and are trying to think yourself into the head of a medieval woman. You’re going to have to understand several things, because even if your character also lives in a city, cities were not what they are now, and most people still had food they grew in the backyard, most people still had far more contact with “nature” than you would, most would think completely differently.
Research goes without saying, but then there are certain basics you must establish:
1- Your character would be far more conversant with death than you are, particularly death of children and cute fuzzy things. She probably killed her own dinner at least a few times (animals were often sold alive, because of no refrigeration. If she’s a housewife, she’d have killed animals more than once.) If this bothers her, you not only need to give us a reason, you need to show us other people being puzzled by her.
2- Your character will be used to far more physical effort than you are. Even if it’s just walking, she’ll walk a lot more than you do in an average day. The concept of exercise being good for you (or anyone) would be a foreign one.
3- Your character’s idea of cleanliness will not be the same as yours. Dirt and contamination is either something you can see, or it’s religious/superstitious, not yours.
4- Your character is unlikely to consider solitude, nature, or a retreat to either as a good thing. Those places are dangerous. Safety is in the cities, or near other human habitations.
This is a surface thing. There is a lot more and if you want to get the full scope, you’ll read biographies of the time, or even contemporary texts. (I do.) BUT the point here is that you need to keep these characteristics in your head the whole time.
I don’t because I pretty much put them on the character, and then let it/her/him carry that burden. BUT if you don’t get characters for free (think about it, that has some advantages. You’re not saddled writing whichever crazy person comes into your head at three in the morning and won’t shut up. Yes, I’m talking about you. You there, in the backbrain with the wings. You’ll have to wait your turn d*mn it. There are a dozen ahead of you.) you might want to make lists of the characteristics that are most different from you, and then a general personality profile (some people do this in the form of an interview.) Then familiarize yourself with it and try to stay with it while writing. But even if you’re me and you get characters for free, things of you, yourself, will drop in, and so…
And so, before you revise read that profile again, and be aware of it for the revision. Does your character, who is an utter introvert, while you’re an extrovert, really enjoy a party with no idea of how uncomfortable it is to be around that many people? Does your character who is a good horsewoman not even think about her horse when she arrives somewhere? Does your character suddenly and for no reason you can give in the story, quote from your favorite book?
This must be weeded in revision. The good thing is it can be, and in writing no one can tell if you fixed it in post.
Next Week: Remember your characters are like you (yes, I do enjoy confusing you. Why?)
Exercise: write a short scene from the pov of a SYMPATHETIC character who is as unlike you as possible.