Today, I read a post on bottledworder’s blog about characters and whether they live inside an author’s head. He asks some excellent questions about where the inspiration for them comes from and how a writer should pursue them. I don’t have the answers to all of them, but suspect the overall answer is ‘it depends.’
I believe we have within us the ability to dream up any kind of character. I could write an old man who observes his community from a bench outside the local store in a small town even though I’m not male or elderly. How? Because I have a smattering of knowledge about men (though I’ll confess they still confound me at times). I understand that they’re inherent problem solvers and prone to action while women tend to be nurturers and see things through a veil of empathy. Men work with facts, women with feelings. In addition, I’ve lived in a small town. I know how the community works, how it feels. I’ve never had a grandfather in my life, but for a while my children had one and I observed him for a number of years.
Even though I’m female, I can relate to male characters I encounter on TV and in books. Whatever struggle the writers have assigned him, at the base of it all, we’re both human. Can a man be empathetic and a woman factual? Of course, but that doesn’t change the fact that he has the ability to step back into a problem solving role much easier. How easily the female would step into the nurturer role would depend on the background I’d given her.
I once wrote a female character who’d survived cancer at an early age and it had affected her ability to conceive. (Claire in Her Unexpected Family) I’m the mother of two, much older, and–thank God–have never had cancer. But I could imagine what it would be like to sit in that chair and have the doctor tell me any dreams of a family were gone and the threat of a reoccurrence of a deadly disease was something I had to live with. I close my eyes and put myself there, listen to the words, I feel the hot rush of emotion behind my eyelids and I know the resolve it takes for her to shut the lid on hopes and dreams she didn’t even know she’d harbored in the depths of her young heart. Even though I’ve never been in that situation, I’ve lived through other things that are similar enough to build on. I’ve had a doctor tell me I needed further testing because of a small mass in my breast. Believe me, though it turned out to be a hormonal mass that dissolved, I ran the gamut of emotions and terror until I got confirmation that it was nothing. I’ve listened to a doctor describe how my mother’s illness would progress and eventually result in her demise. It’s–to put it mildly–difficult, but I drew on those experiences, those emotions to build my heroine and her struggle.
That’s what I believe is meant by the saying ‘writers must suffer for their craft’.
To bottledworder: I’m thinking that you had a lot more of your female character than you thought,but gave up too soon. Start from the point that you know: a modern woman who wants to pursue an education and career and keep the questions coming. It’s very likely she’d struggle with the conflicting emotions you thought of. You’ve asked some excellent questions and ones that allude to fabulous conflict. Perhaps her conflicts deal with something too close to you. Something that you shied away from. I find that’s often the case when I can’t seem to write a chapter or scene. It’s too close. I have to wallow in emotions and memories I’d rather not. But if we’re to tell the story, we have to.
>>Did she feel powerless not being able to be the engine of her own destiny?
Wouldn’t you? Turn it into something you can relate to. Suppose those you love and wish to please insisted… No. …demanded that you become an accountant or a doctor. They’ve enrolled you in a prestigious school at great expense they can ill afford to lose. They’ve chosen your path – one you are loath to pursue, but it’s because they want you to have a secure future. How would you react? How would you feel?
>>Did she feel empowered by the social status that a good groom and a good marriage bestowed on her?
Perhaps a small part of her does and hates the ‘weakness’. Maybe she wishes she’d made her own dreams known and fought harder to be independent.
>>Did she feel lost?
Could be. What about betrayed and abandoned? The people she trusts, loves and has been taught to obey are doing what they believe is in her best interests. They grew up in another era and are acting out of love (and perhaps pride) so she finds it difficult to blame them. Will she blame herself? Will she view her new adventure as a challenge or as an opression to be endured? Only you as the author know. The answers will grow out of the life you’ve built for her, her backstory.
>>Did she feel regret at not having pursued her studies or training further on her own?
Excellent question. Did she have the means and not speak up, or squandered an opportunity early in her youth? Perhaps she brought shame on her family with some of her youthful actions and sees this compliance as penance. Something to think about. BTW, this is the ‘what if’ phase of character development. It’s brainstorming, and can reveal some really meaty goodness if you stay open to it. Let her reveal herself to you. Keep asking questions, keep digging.
>>What would she do now?
Well, that’s the best question of all. Once you know your character, are living inside her skin, it’s time to write her book. So, brainstorm, bottledworder, brainstorm!
Thanks Carol/ Annie. That was a beautiful response. This is more than I had hoped ! You have led my speculations in excellent directions and I learnt a lot from the way you teased out my dilemmas about character creation. Thanks!
You’re welcome. Glad it was of some help. 🙂
Oh, and thanks for taking the time to comment.
I could not agree with Carol’s comments more! If a writer’s never done this brainstorming before, now’s the time to start. I like doing it in a graphic organizer (diagramming webs or sometimes comparing and contrasting two characters in a Venn diagram), but sometimes people actually write “interviews” for each character, then providing the answers like Carol did above. This is a powerful tool.
Also, especially for anyone under 35, I recommend reading a couple books/articles about psychology, particularly about personality theories. I have a friend who types all her characters under the Myers-Briggs system—it helps the behavior of the characters seem more convincing.
Great point about the Myers-Briggs system. I use that occasionally as well. Interviews are good too. I’ve even written a diary entry or two for a female character using the time frame in their life when something pivotal happened. It’s fascinating to hear the young voice of the character and gives a different perspective. The Complete Writer’s Guide to Heroes and Heroines by Cowden/LaFever/Viders gives concise information on archetypes that’s helpful too.
Excellent blog, Carol. ( I have written about killers, but don’t have a lot of experience there, yet.)
I’m glad to hear that on both counts, Mary. LOL!
You always make me see it clear with your suggestions. Walking away and brainstroming always gives me a direction to go in.
Then it’s a good thing I love to brainstorm, yeah? It’s fun!