Talking to your characters

Dear all,

This is the post that finally convinces you all that I’m ‘crazy’! You all had your concerns I’m sure but this is the moment when you can say, yes! I knew it!
            Well let me remind you this is all in the interest of being open and honest about my journey in writing and the issues that an amateur like me faces. Although I’m sure professionals also have trouble on occasion with the creation of their characters, especially those who undertake epic prose, the experience they have gained equips them with sets of tools they employ when they need to and they rely on those tools when they come up against difficult ideas, or rather, translating those difficult ideas from mind to paper. I’m going to look at one specific tool, and whether or not a story has lots of characters (‘War and Peace’ anyone…http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_War_and_Peace_characters) how I am starting to use it.
            I have not developed my character building skills very well yet but I am looking at it this year. I have some template profiles that I knocked up some years ago that lists multiple traits both emotional and physical and that helps me to layer the person bit by bit. This doesn’t come first for me, I start typing, see what comes out and then go back, build, and chisel. What I said I would always do, but haven’t yet (that list is a rather long one by the way…) is talk to the people I am creating. If a character is to be believed then you must see them as real humans and regardless of what you are going to put them through in your story they must stand alone as something you are proud of, not necessarily because you like them, they may be horrible buggers, but you like that they are fleshed-out, rounded, developed people that could exist. And then, should you put them through the mangle of whatever perilous storyline you are working on, they should be strong enough so that they may well develop the storyline themselves, the plot could begin to have a life of its own as the saying goes by allowing yourself to believe in the people you have made up. You can also allow yourself to admit that although initially wanting the story to go one way, it is now more appropriate and believable for it to go another way. This is especially important if you need a method for keeping track of their progression, if you are putting them through difficult dramatic situations then surely they have to come out of those changed, just as we all would, perhaps for the better, perhaps for the worst, but they cannot be unaffected. Are they hurt, are they upset, are they scared, traumatised and so on? And amongst the many techniques you can employ to examine this, why not ask them? It sounds so bizarre I know but I have found it helps me. I don’t think I am suddenly capable of writing amazingly in-depth characterisation now but it is a tool I have tried and will continue to keep, ready to be used when I need.
There are of course many fantastic websites devoted to the craft of storytelling and this blog is certainly no source of evidence for anyone in the search of professional technique but I do want to share with you how I am challenging myself in this arena.
            So as you may possibly have read on this blog already, I am hoping to produce a lot of words this year. Whether, come December, those words have found an order and somehow magically combine with full stops, commas, speech marks and other punctuation to form stories that are interesting, moving, funny and meaningful I have no idea, but I have the time and space to think more seriously and that’s why I don’t mind seeming a little odd.
I’m not talking about just dialogue here. I’m covering the whole creation from cursory idea to the brand of tea they buy. When I first made notes however many years ago I would inadvertently talk out loud. Not always, just here and there. I remember thinking that it was a bit weird and perhaps I should try and control that before anyone sees or hears me. I’m now going back to that sense of freedom and yes, apparent craziness, to feel free to talk out loud and see what happens. If I am writing in the apartment then of course, no problem, there is no one to worry about, no matter how odd my accent becomes, how bizarre my gestures or absolutely terrible my mimicry and dialect imitations are. It’s a bit more daunting if I am in public; say for example, a local café because you can’t help worrying about what you look like. You don’t want an officially painted car with flashing lights to pull up to you and gently ask if everything is all right Sir, and has Sir been drinking today. That is another reason why I love people who have the commitment and discipline to stay at their desk all day, to treat writing like what is really is, a job, and work 9-5, or 8-6, etc. at their desk just like anyone else who works at a computer. That way, you do not allow the distractions of outside life to interrupt you. Anyway, that is to digress.
I’ll try and get to the point now. I talk out loud because I am convinced that to improve my writing ability I have to improve the believability of my prose whether it be inner monologue, full blown ten person dinner party conversation raucousness or intimate one to one whispering. Therefore I consider it to be real, it’s happening right in front of me there and then, I see it, I feel it, I hear it, and the only way to see how it moves, shapes and develops is to do more than ingest and receive, but interject, test, manipulate and participate. So I talk out loud. There is no other way to explain it and I do feel odd admitting it but there is it. I speak as if I were the character, as if I were another character talking to this character and as myself, the writer trying to pick apart what I do and don’t know yet. I want to explore what they may say and see if something can grow of its own accord, it may sound very strange because if it is me talking to myself, then surely I know what is coming next and what I am going to say, but believe me when I say I don’t. I am sure actors must go through hours of this type of training at drama school, not just improvisation and role-play with given information, or given characters, but actually creating something from nothing on the spot. It is amazing what just pops out of your head when you put yourself in a situation where you test a thought…of course you can certainly go blank, I’m not saying amazing gems materialize every time, you get ten times more rubbish than you do workable material (isn’t that the case with everything in life?) but I am finding the confidence more and more to really dissect a situation and put myself in the position of people I have no experience of.
If I want to write a character that is a mother then I am obviously still only using my imagination, I have no experience of being a woman and a mother but I have experience and knowledge of the interactions I have had in my 34 years with women and mothers and I need to try and focus memories and real-life situations and use them for my own gain, it’s quite ruthless in a way, it’s a form of stealing I guess. I may come out with a sentence that comes from someone specific in my past and I can tell who it is, but I then need to repeat that line a few times out loud, test it and turn it into something real that works for this character and if that sounds real, believable then great, no one reading it (or perhaps just a few…) will ever know that this person’s accent may have derived from Mr or Mrs X. It is just so fascinating that the meaning of a written sentence, or just a written word, can change so much when saying it out loud. It may sound terrible, so terrible you can’t believe you even considered it, you may have written what could be the worst cheap-ass day time soap crass cliché ridden trash ever and you have to hide in bed all day before allowing yourself to believe you deserve a place on this Earth again, but aren’t you glad you found out before the readers!
Many things change once you start saying things out loud and I’m really glad that I am able to use speech again because I have been afraid of it for a long time. I will continue to have conversations with myself and by the end of the year the proof will either be there that I am a writer that has embraced realism and is capable of creating characters people can fall in love with, or a person that has been in isolation too long and needs psychiatric care, you can decide.

P.S Out of interest, if you want to take a look at some epic works click over to Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_longest_novels


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