Stepping into My Character’s Head

Last month I talked about stepping into my character’s body, so of course this month I had to think about stepping into my character’s head. Getting into a character’s mental space is where I excel. I have a real knack for empathy –not for displaying it, I should note, but feeling it. I think most writers have a gift for feeling empathy as that’s what allows us to see from the perspectives of our heroes and villains even when our values don’t align. It’s also why we’re a hypersensitive lot, but that’s a topic for another day.

Aside from my empathetic abilities, I also harbor a compulsion to play devil’s advocate. I’m skilled, most of the time, at being able to see all sides of an argument even when I am staunchly on one side of it. Yes, it can be a pain to argue with me when it’s something I know quite a lot about. No, I don’t know how people spend extended time in my company some days.

My point is, it’s usually easy for me to step into someone else’s head, whether they’re real or imaginary. Besides the fact that I love doing it in a fictional setting. As long as I know the parameters of a character’s existence, really a lot of nurture aspects and a few nature ones, I’m good to go. Occasionally, I can be surprised by organic actions and choices, but that’s half the fun of writing.

Elgin Mermaid 202... by Darron Birgenheier via Flickr

Elgin Mermaid 202… by Darron Birgenheier via Flickr

It’s also important –and helpful– to write what you know when you can. The main character I was talking about previously may be wholly different from me body-wise, but mentally we are very alike. Our different life experiences have shaped us differently, as have our needs, obviously, but our core selves are similar.

In that way, it’s easier to write her because I know what choices and reactions I’d make in similar situations she’s put in. However, she’ll occasionally buck when I push her the wrong way. Furthermore, because of our physical and experience differences, she’s able to respond in ways I never could to certain situations.

Conversely, sometimes it’s extremely difficult to write her because when she goes to a dark place, I have to as well. Over the years I have pulled myself out of the emotional tailspin my character is currently wallowing in. It was hard. And I’m not used to dipping a toe in and not taking it away with me when I’m not writing. That’s part of the reason I walked away from my WIP in the first place.

I’ve been grappling with how to write but not live the darker emotions and have had some great feedback from fellow writers. I feel prepared enough to dive back into my story.

Writing another’s mental space is kind of a balancing act between rational response, natural response, expected character response, and what the story needs. It’s so much fun when it all comes together.

How I People My Stories

Any writer out there who has shared their work can tell you that they field two questions the most of any others asked. One, where do you get your inspiration? Two, do you put people you know in your stories?

My answer to question one is glib and simple: everywhere. The ‘What if…’ that is the genesis to any story can be sparked by anything. Anything. Sometimes at the most inconvenient moments.

Question two is far more fun to field, particularly because I have to think about it.

mirror by Paul Keller via Flickr

mirror by Paul Keller via Flickr

I would never consider myself a narcissist, I just don’t like myself enough to be obsessed with me (sorry self), but I do put myself in my stories. Sometimes on purpose, other times it’s kind of a surprise when I go back and read them. It’s important to write what you know, so I try to write from emotional places I know when I can. Writing has always been part catharsis for me, and sharing an emotional problem with a character and then writing them out of it/showing them learning how to live with it, is healing for me.

Not all of my characters share my anxieties and fears, or all of my anxieties and fears. You can’t force personality aspects on characters that are unnatural for them. Neither do I put my characters in my exact shoes and have them live my life experiences. I would hate for someone to read this and then read a story I’ve written where something truly horrific happened to a character and think that that’s me incognito. I am not my characters, my characters are not me. We might share a few characteristics, but that’s as far as the connections should go.

As far as people other than me, I don’t consciously or intentionally put them in my stories. I know new authors always go through moments of terror about a certain person reading their work and then accusing them of putting them in their story. I’ve never had that fear. But then I haven’t written or shared a ton of writing.

I don’t see people I know in my writing. Perhaps I’ve riffed off traits I admire in people I know, but I’ve never done it specifically. I’m wondering if I may have a tendency to do the opposite, to take people I know and disguise them. I really don’t know. I’m going to have to wait for an accusation.

I like to write characters who are willing to do things I’d never consider attempting. It’s a way to do the outrageous safely.

Regardless, I am no Steinbeck or Munro. I’m not writing out my life story in a mirror town in order to veil my autobiography. If I wrote those books they would be very boring. I would be very bored writing them. They’d most likely devolve into far more interesting odes devoted to my cats.

Now, if I could go live the lives of the characters I write….I don’t know if I’d be excited or petrified. I like indoor plumbing and creature comforts far too much to go trekking off with the women I populate my work with. Honestly, they’d probably ditch me at the beginning of the adventure. For my own good.

Abandoned Gas Station On The National Road In Ohio by Mark Spearman via Flickr. This is the kind of place they'd leave me. Though why we'd be in Ohio...

Abandoned Gas Station On The National Road In Ohio by Mark Spearman via Flickr. This is the kind of place they’d leave me. Though why we’d be in Ohio…