Life is a continual process of learning and discovery.
So is writing.
That’s what makes both ever new and interesting … and fun!
I’ve spent my life learning and teaching, both formally and informally. The teaching-learning process is a beautiful thing, for it is all about sharing; about spreading information, knowledge, and experience across the family of humanity; about connecting the present to the past and the future. Being a part of this process is exciting and rewarding.
After more than thirty years in the teaching profession, I retired … from the profession, that is, but not from teaching itself. My teaching now involves helping other writers make their work the best it can be. Most of what I share about writing has been learned from others who have willingly passed their knowledge along. Paying it forward gives me a great deal of satisfaction — and occasional frustration, when what I’ve learned isn’t enough to help.
That happened last week.
As a writing group member, critique partner, beta reader, and editor, I frequently read stories where I feel distanced from the point-of-view character and, thus, do not care much about what happens to him or her. No matter how interesting the plot and idea, without an emotional connection to the character, the story seems flat.
The reason for this problem, I felt, was that the writer did not know the character well enough. This had once been a flaw in my own writing, which another writer kindly pointed out to me. I suggested that my fellow writers do detailed character studies that would include all the character’s background, family, education, work/school history, likes and dislikes, hobbies, interests, attitudes, desires, fears, motivations, and so on.
In other words, a few paragraphs describing the point-of-view character are not enough. A writer must know the character’s history and hidden depths as well as those things apparent to the other characters. Most of these things will never appear in the story or novel, but knowing them helps the writer create a full-fleshed, three-dimensional character instead of a wooden puppet.
Writing in-depth character studies works for me. Often, however, even after some of these writers did as I’d suggested, I still felt little connection to their characters. I couldn’t figure out why. I admit — sorry friends! — that I privately wondered whether they really had done the character analyses. If they had, then why wasn’t this working for them?
Then came my eureka moment last week. I was actually in the bathroom getting ready to go out [channeling Archimedes?] when the pieces fell into place, and I realized that knowing the point-of-view character intimately was not enough.
At the Writers Coffeehouse [a free forum hosted by the Philadelphia Liars Club and held the last Sunday of each month at the Barnes & Noble in Willow Grove, PA] in January, I had talked to friend and actor Keith Strunk. Part of our conversation had me thinking about actors getting into the heads of characters for the roles they have to perform. I could relate to this because I get into the heads of my point-of-view characters every time I write. I’ve always done this; it’s as natural as breathing for me, and I can’t conceive of any other way of writing.
As I stood in front of the bathroom mirror that morning, I realized that this might not be true for all writers — that the reason I feel no connection to the point-of-view character in some writers’ stories could be because they are writing from outside the character’s head, not inside. No matter how well a writer knows the point-of-view character, the reader will feel distanced from the character if the writer is distanced from the character as he or she writes. A writer, like an actor, must get into the skin of the character, see what the character sees, experience what the character experiences, and feel what the character feels. When a writer does that, the character comes alive and the distance is removed, allowing the reader to feel close to the character and, thus, to care about what happens in the story.
I didn’t run out of the bathroom shouting “Eureka!”, but I could hardly wait to share my insight with my critique group. And as I mused over the possibilities, I realized that getting fully inside the point-of-view character’s head could also help eliminate other problems I frequently see in manuscripts, such as:
- having the character act in a manner contrary to the character’s personality [making the character do what the author wants, not what that character would actually do]
- slipping into another character’s thoughts or point of view
- including details or events that the point-of-view character could not know [for instance, what is going on behind the character’s back or outside the room]
It’s vital for an author to both know the point-of-view character intimately and to get inside the character’s head when writing.
How do you get inside your character’s head as you write? Do you find this an easy or difficult thing to do?