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.

Stepping into My Character

Every time I sit down and just think about the main character of my WIP, I am amazed and overwhelmed about the places my brain goes. I guess it comes with the writing territory, but the novelty has yet to wear off.

For instance, I was thinking about bodies the other night. My character’s body is an important tool to her. She has honed it, trained it, pushed it, and tested it beyond limits conceivable to me personally. With her military training and the line of work she is in, her body is a key factor in keeping her alive. Sure, she’ll have human moments and experiences in her body, but when it really comes down to it, it’s just another tool in her arsenal.

This is not the case for my body or my lived experience. Over the years I have not been very good to my body. I’ve cleaned up my act over the past 7 years and I’ve come a long way from where I started, but my body will never be able to do what my characters can; and I don’t mean just because we exist in different realities. It’s not even a mental block on my part. My body literally will not –cannot– do what hers can. I’m ok with that.

My little workout space.

My little workout space.

I’m happy being a writer with a day job who walks/runs/bikes 23 km on my basement equipment each week. Throw in the occasional hike and 5 K and I’m a happy camper. My character hunts and tracks in her job. She regularly fights to the death.

Beyond job requirements, she lives a life of body maintenance while I live one of healing. Ask any person who is recuperating from some sort of physical problem, they can tell you how hard healing is when you want to hit a certain physical peak.

Anyway, my point is it’s fascinating for me to use the few truly quiet moments my life affords me to put myself in my character’s skin. I imagine our physical differences and similarities inside and out and extend my thoughts to the whys and necessities of them. She must be strong and fit because her very existence depends on it. I need to be fit because it affects my quality of life. Not quite the same thing, and this effects choices down the road for her.

The National Guard by New York National Guard via Flickr.

The National Guard by New York National Guard via Flickr.

I couldn’t tell you if all writers do this, or whether I take my story thinking too far. Regardless, I find it fun and fascinating. Writing and reading my character will be the only time I’ll ever get close to feeling like someone who can make their body do damn near anything. Some days when I crouch down I have to convince my bad knee it’s in its best interest to get back up.

CSI: A Fangirl’s Dissatisfaction and An Artist’s Promise

I need to start off by confessing that I watch a lot of TV. Like, a lot. It’s absolutely a guilty pleasure in my life, but I swear it helps me maintain my sanity. I know I would probably get more accomplished in life if I didn’t fill my evenings with time spent in front of the glowing screen. Alas.

CSI Brass and GrissomMany of these hours have been spent watching CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. When it comes to CSI, there are two people: those who love CSI and those who hate CSI. Regardless of what camp you fall in to, my post has something for you. Maybe.

This is also my mini-rant because I have nowhere else to share my thoughts.

Last weekend, on September 27th, the final episode of CSI aired. Shows end. I get that. There was absolutely no warning from the end of the season finale in spring to this September. I don’t follow TV show blogs and I did not see any previews, so I was really in the dark. I can get over that, but this alone was enough to upsets me because I’m really emotionally attached to the characters and the world. It’s not so much the loss of the show as the fantasy. I think any reader can understand where I’m coming from here in this regard. I had no time to learn the information about the absolute end, process it, and come to terms with it before I had to watch the episode.

You might think I’m overreacting, but you have to understand just how long I’ve been watching CSI. I’ve beenCSI Catherine and Grissom watching since the very beginning. I was 9 years old in 2000, but I remember sitting in the living room with my parents and brother watching the “Pilot” episode with its eerie green tinge and overworked forensic perspective. Those two aspects are what I fell in love with. And the science.

I’ve seen every episode over the past fifteen years. That’s fifteen years of me faithfully entering this world of crime and following the lives of the people who populate it. That’s investment.

What’s worse than an abrupt ending though, what I am legitimately angry about, is what a crappy ending the network powers-that-be created for CSI. I was up all night after watching it because I was so frustrated.

CSI DaveI warn you, there will be spoilers.

First off, the premise of the episode that brought all the major characters back into play, Grissom, Brass, Catherine, and Lady Heather, was so tenuous at best that I felt slightly insulted. Things only got worse.

There’s a love triangle, a ridiculous one, between Sarah, Grissom, and Lady Heather that was once again put into play despite the fact that Sarah and Grissom have married and divorced and the fact that Grissom has never been attracted to Lady Heather in a romantic sense. But how could the writers pass up a chance to make Sarah such a jealous nag? It was infuriating to watch her constantly snap like a little girl who’s pigtails were pulled.

Then, none of the current actors of the show were given much air time at all. I know they pulled in the big guns, but these people who have carried the show without them deserved more. And at the end we discovered one was dead via CSI Greg anda memorial plaque that was being placed in a box by another character along with a token mention. It wasn’t even explicit that she’d died.

Beyond all of that, the investigation was barely given any attention. Leads and crime fighting were spottily followed and there was absolutely no discussion or closure at the end which is very much a part of the CSI formula. At one point a third person died and we were never told who it was, why they were where they were, or how that tied in the eventual capture of the main culprit.

But to top off the heaping pile of BS, the story ended with Sarah and Grissom riding on his boat out into the sunset. I should mention this happened roughly five or six seasons back. Both of them quit the crime lab and took off together for happily ever after. Then Sarah came back, still married to Grissom, but wanting to be a part of the crime solution again. Eventually the long distance killed their relationship and it ended in a quiet divorce.

CSI Marcy, Hodgins, GrissomHowever, because they both realized how much they missed each other in this episode, doing the EXACT SAME THING made perfect sense. They talked through none of their problems of course repeating history would be the ultimate solution. My inner hopeless romantic fool couldn’t even swallow that. I won’t even get into how irate I am over them having a woman give up her career AGAIN because the man wants to pursue something else.

I feel robbed. The entire two hour story was fraught with basic plot problems and ended on such a bad note that I still have a sour taste in my mouth. I just want to know how the show’s producers and the TV powers-that-be could do that to their fans. I’m insulted. To the bone.CSI Nick and Russell

So here’s my promise: I will never, ever wrap up any story or series that I write this badly. If I can take away nothing else positive from this nightmare of a series finale, that is it. I promise any fans I may ever have that they will only be angry that the story is over, not that it ended on such flimsy, mediocre legs.

Thanks for bearing with me if you’ve made it to this point. Have you finished any TV or book series that left you dissatisfied?

 

*All images from IMBD.com

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…

Perfection and Paralysis

Very recently, I came across this quote from Anne Lamott, here, along with a few other gems:

“Oh my God, what if you wake up some day, and you’re 65, or 75, and you never got your memoir or novel written; or you didn’t go swimming in warm pools and oceans all those years because your thighs were jiggly and you had a nice big comfortable tummy; or you were just so strung out on perfectionism and people-pleasing that you forgot to have a big juicy creative life of imagination and radical silliness and staring off into space like when you were a kid? It’s going to break your heart. Don’t let this happen … Shoot the moon.”

It is unbelievable how much this quote speaks to my life experience. Whether it comes to my writing or to my body, I have let my perceived inadequacies hold me back from a lot of experiences.

When it comes to my work, failure is my greatest fear; I’m not sure when success became equated with perfection. It’s incredibly difficult to find the energy and stamina to start and then carry on when you live beneath a cloud of fear like that. I know that perfection is unrealistic. I don’t expect it of anyone. Yet I constantly think about it, obsess, worry, when it comes to myself.

Old Light Switches by Paul Cross via Flickr

Old Light Switches by Paul Cross via Flickr

My perfectionism is not a switch I can just turn off. It’s been on a long time.

When I was in French immersion, I was constantly criticized by the teaching staff for not talking. I was at the school to learn a second language and the only way to learn a second language is to speak it. Pipe up, make mistakes, move on. They were baffled by me. Frankly, I was baffled by them. Why did they revel in my discomfort? At some point my mom finally told my teachers outright that I wouldn’t speak until I knew it all. Not an elucidating rationale, but on the nose.

It comes back to anxieties and insecurities. My overall self-esteem has definitely increased since my middle school days. I’ve matured enough and hardened my skin enough to put myself out there to make mistakes, to learn, and grow. It’s tough, but worth it in the end. So worth it.

I’m far surer in intellectual pursuits than in those other experiences where my body is on the line. I’ve had a contentious relationship with my physical self for so long that that shell is proving exceedingly difficult to break out of. I’ve denied myself a lot due to my fears and the feeling that I don’t measure up. I’m tired of it. And I’m encouraged by the fact that popular media is too.

However, that’s a conversation for another place. I’m about the writing pursuits here!

I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to completely walk away from my hang-ups over perfection. I’m a perfectionist at my core. Every mistake I miss, every task I fail at, jolts me. I hate failure. Yet when you grow so obsessed with being perfect that you find yourself paralyzed, you have to step back.

It’s been a long time coming, but I’ve learned to step back, assess, breathe, and dive in. Honestly, you have to mess up –be brave enough to chance the possibility of messing up– or you’ll never know what you’re capable of. Casting off my need to people please was easy. Probably easier than it should have been. Now I need to continue the trend no matter how long it takes.

Yes, one of my biggest fears is failure. An ever greater fear is highlighted in this quote –what if I wake up 50 years from now and realize I let that fear steal my life? Hell, that would be so much worse than a bit of bruised ego.

Put the pen to paper. Start typing. Keep typing. Spit that story out and be glad you did it. That’s what I’m walking away with.

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