Writing Characters III

All writers have their own process. Mine begins with character(s). They present early on. I pay no mind to back-story, physical characteristics, or even their role at this initial stage; rather, I contemplate how their emotional construct impels their actions. Writers recognize this as: What does the character need? What motivates him?

Where I part company with some is to require a refined sense of what that need is. Saving the world, getting vengeance, finding love, etc. arise from a constellation of experiences and mental, emotional, and often cultural constructs before emerging. For example, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” There is a lot of back-story packed into that Big Bang of an opening line from “Pride and Prejudice,” such that it led to attitudes, feelings, assessments, strategies and inter-character dynamics unfolding throughout the entire, fascinating novel.

I am not referring to the best way to reveal or mete out characters’ motivations; I am saying I need to comprehend the underlying geology before I can explain a volcano’s eruption.

When I created Eddie Matthews, the despicable bad guy in “I Detest All My Sins,” I wanted to humanize him, so gave him a violent childhood. But it wasn’t enough to confer complex emotional depth beyond expected anger and violence. He wants his captive, Louise, to want him emotionally and sexually. He’s more than willing to handcuff her in a closet and abuse her in the meantime, yet he still longs for her. He’s by no means sympathetic; he’s otherwise self-serving, evil as hell, and a little ego parading as a big ego. But who can’t identify with feelings of longing? It contributed to the favorable Kirkus review of the book, including the remark, “…there’s an appealing neatness to the author’s careful psychological studies.”

            The more clarity we possess regarding our own inner landscape, the easier to project it onto our fictional characters; yet not simple. We have defenses, ways of rationalizing unpleasant events and feelings about ourselves that may arise from them. I’m no shrink, but I frequently pause at the keyboard, lean back, and conjure my own history before I can imbue it into a fictional character. Perhaps this is why writing is often cathartic.

I am fascinated by training in method acting, i.e., techniques to access long-ago emotions locked in a closet out of self-protectiveness for use on the stage—crying real tears when the scene calls for it—then putting the grief back into the closet when the klieg lights go off. There, the actor isn’t “acting” per se, but in that and other moments “becomes” the character.

Finally, not everybody needs to plumb depths of their own psyches to create fascinating, complex characters. Some have great radar or are blessed with intuitive understandings of psycho-dynamics. Me? I need to dig within myself. I need to access feelings of fear, longing, love, hate, frustration—the panoply of emotions attendant to being human—and bring them to the surface, examine them from all angles, recall what they meant to my life and how I reacted for better or for worse, and what the consequences were.

Once I do that in me, I can put it in a book.

 

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