I find that I write best, both plotting and characterization-wise, when I can get inside the skin of the characters I am writing about. I don’t mean only “understand how they think”, which is such a common prescription for writing all kinds of fiction that it has lost any real meaning. Rather, I mean practicing such an exercise of empathy that the writer is transported into the mental and emotional – even physical – space inhabited by the character.
In this way I see the world through that person’s eyes, literally. Even better, I also ‘see ‘ the character in my mind’s eye like viewing a movie, at the same time that I inhabit that space from inside their being. The result is an immersive experience that lets me know viscerally what they feel and think at the same time I see how it plays visually in their setting. This is what I translate into story on my written page.
Finding the Right Plot Path
From this you may gather (and you would be correct) that I generally do not play in the realm of “anything’s possible” in my stories. That is to say that for “plot purposes”, I could write it that character X might kill her lover in a jealous rage, or forgive him, or marry him, or commit suicide over it all – but would she really do any or all of those things? No, actually: in fact she will only do option Y: the option that is most true to her being, most in line with her emotions and motivations and reactions of the moment.
I wouldn’t be getting it right if I “invented” one of those other responses in order to carry me down a plot path that I desire rather than the one the characters are truly living in.
How do I tune in on the “right” option from all the possibilities? Well, that comes of “being there,” of being part of her, of experiencing her emotional furor from the inside out. Even then it is at a remove, of course (because that person I’m tuning into is “there”, and I am “here”) – but still, the forcefulness of that state of emotions and personal choices comes through strongly enough that I hear it loud and clear.
How clearly I hear this depends upon how well I connect psychically (or transdimensionally, if you will) with a given character. That, in turn, is a function of me getting my own ego out of the way, and allowing myself to “go there” and inhabit that space. I can do this through meditation, or guided visualization, but I find the most reliable way to achieve it is sparked by something closely akin to role-playing.
Roleplaying Just Like in Real Life…
I don’t mean role-playing that is some stiff, wooden improv process, or a transactional analysis-style ‘how do you feel about that’ exploration of ‘stuff’. I mean role playing where you imagine what someone says to you and you are suddenly talking back to them, out loud, in the privacy of your room, maybe expounding your point, getting adamant and carried away until it is as if they are Right There in front of you, or you are Over There (wherever they are), immediate and personal and in the flesh.
And then the phone rings or your cat looks at you funny, and you’re brought back to yourself with a shock of realization that you’re just pacing in circles waving your arms a lot, and getting energetically engaged with someone who isn’t there.
(Er…ok. Surely we’ve all done that now and then, right? Tell me it isn’t just me.)
…and RPGs, Too
This is the same role-playing skill that falls instantly into place for me when I play non-player characters in role-playing games. NPCs are never placid two-dimensional cookie-cutter templates to me. They are living, breathing people with their own personalities and quirks, goals and motivations. For a while, in a game, I tap into all that, and become the conduit for it so that an NPC can find expression in the controlled context that is the game.
When writing a novel, I connect with characters in the same way. When I “am” them, the writing flows easily and quickly, as does the plot (which they wilfully readjust and move into more correct directions when they do). When I am not in synch in this manner, it is all very slow going indeed, and I can write pitiful reams of garbage in the quest to get to that spot where the story is “right”. (Then I get to toss the garbage and do it over again the right way.)
As Julia Cameron Says…
The shortcut to “right”, for me, is to do this role-playing exercise (which I can usually manage in my head, actually, instead of shouting at the air – generally, anyway - which is probably to my housemates’ gratification). When I’m properly there, it is an incredible rush. I’ve been up all night as I write this, buzzed on an experience of Kes, the protagonist of Splintegrate, as I saw her move into her full-on power space where she is an incredibly commanding presence and an electrifying celebrity.
I know I’m in the right space with a work when it feels like this. And that all comes from “being there”, which in turn comes from an empathy exercise that is deepened by role-playing.
Now, I know the psychologists among you are going to have a field day with statements of this sort. To which I can only smile and say have at it. I’m sure there are myriad ways to interpret the kind of experience I describe above.
For my money, though, I can only quote Julia Cameron of The Artist’s Way fame1: “I’m not making this up; I’m getting it down.”
1. A transformative book if there ever was one. I dedicated Mainline in part to Julia Cameron, whose inspired material in The Artist’s Way helped transform my relationship to creativity. I credit the sale of that book largely to the work I did in The Artist’s Way. Hence my gratitude to Cameron.