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.