Becoming Your Characters

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“It sounds like you,” said my friend, the playwright, when I asked him about the script I had given him.

Coming from a successful writer, it wasn’t a compliment. If all the characters in your novel sound like you, maybe you should forget about the novel and write an autobiographical monologue instead.

You’ll find, if you listen to them, that your characters want to be free. They want to be individuals. Just like your children, they don’t want to be exactly like you. And, just like your children, they shouldn’t be.

Many fiction writers approach their work as an actor does his. When they are writing about a character, they become that character. Actors call it “Method acting,” based on the methods of Russian director Konstantin Stanislavsky.

Method acting was a reaction to the nineteenth century tradition of making “rhetorical gestures” that were supposed to represent every human emotion. Writers can fall into a similar trap, where their characters act in clichéd manners, always “weeping” when they are sad, always “chuckling” when they are happy. (My characters are always “smiling.”)

The key to “Method writing” is to understand the character, then let the character live. When you know, even subconsciously, what the character is like, you will instinctively know what the character is going to do or say.

Some authors, like some actors, write out elaborate biographies for every major character before they begin. For others, such pre-planning would hurt their creative process. Indeed, as you write, even well-researched characters usually end up surprising you, as you realize that they aren’t exactly who you thought they were.

This may sound more mystical than it needs to. I’m not advocating a voodoo-like possession, where your characters take over your life. But a sensitive writer knows when an action or a statement rings true to that character or not.

Of course, if you’re not discreet as you work, people will look at you funny. One daughter of a famous nineteenth century novelist recalled how he would write his dialog out loud, playing each character in turn in fine theatrical style. After receiving that mild rebuke from my friend the playwright, I found myself working on dialog as I walked to work along a certain downtown street. I wasn’t the only person on that street talking to himself. Later I discovered that just around the corner was a shelter that catered to the homeless mentally ill.

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16 thoughts on “Becoming Your Characters”

  1. As a newbie author, I find creating characters, without injecting my own attributes into them, is hard. This article will be a big help in that area.

    Thanks. 🙂

  2. when I’m creating characters, i sometimes find this helpfull: you fill it in and you have a basic idea of who your character is.
    Hope this helps!

  3. I find my characters surprise me when I write them. One even turned out to be evil after I couldn’t get her to feel right. And now, she seems so different from the beginning, and yet, she flows better than before.

    I try to make character plans, because when I do, I find that my characters somehow or rather, have similar speech patterns. Making character charts help me distinguish them.

    And this article just made my day. Because it rings true with me too. 😀

  4. When your characters surprise you, you should follow down that road, as there are often more to come.

    The trick is know when to reel them in.

  5. I practically learned writing from Roleplaying (play-by-post style) and so characters come the easiest for me, I think. I have several characters with very different voices and one in particular that really has become herself. I’m honestly not sure what I’m trying to say here, but I guess Roleplaying with characters is one of the easiest ways to get to know them. Besides that, it’s more fun that way. XDD I suppose it helps to have a few other good writer friends, and a younger mindset >_> Maybe only kids like me would be interested in that sort of thing.

  6. I do the same as Nova; I roleplay. I sort of imagine that I am the character, in the setting, talking to the people and seeing the events and stuff going on around me, and then I am not me anymore, I am the character. Even when the character is not a female, I can do this pretty easily. I thought I just had an overactive imagination, but I am pleased to hear I am not the only one.

    I find one of the best ways to develop a character is to be that person right before you go to sleep and right when you wake up. Just imagine yourself in whatever setting your character is in, and then let them talk and move (it is sort of like daydreaming).

  7. I see the character before I hear them, if that makes sense.

    My character’s are generally nothing like me, but more like people I know or have imagined.

    I know this isn’t 100% relevant but I often come up with my characters before I have chosen a setting, story line, theme, etc.


  8. On second thought I think there is probably a part of us in very character we create (after all – we are the creators!) I think the trick is not to let ourselves shine through too blatantly.

  9. Excellent piece!

    I’m a huge fan of acting out your words. I tell my students to read their words aloud, especially if the writing is for a screenplay, because obviously the text has to scan when spoken rather than read.

    In fact even if the dialogue is not for a spoken word piece I tend to act out the words. In fact I IMPROVISE the words, as if the characters are talking. I shut myself into my office where I won’t be disturbed (advisable to avoid encounters with men in white coats) and act out conversations with the characters.

    You know what the creepy thing is? I know a little about them when I start but I know lots more about them when we finish chatting. Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? But you need to give your characters a life of their own.

    Where do these voices come from? The subconscious, the source of all your creativity. Unlocking the subconscious is one of my favourite subjects! Swing by and join me on my blog some time.

    Once again, thanks for the post, very thought provoking.

  10. Hmm…that’s interesting. What I do is imagine my character as if they would be in a TV show…is that appropriate? Somehow, this always works. I can never get a clear image in my mind of my character until I draw them, yet I can describe them perfectly in my stories…is that alright?

  11. I agree with the article, but not the title. The worry isn’t when YOU become your characters. It’s when YOUR CHARACTERS become you.

    Method acting is usually thought of as the technique of using your thoughts, feelings, and experiences tomake a character. In essence, you become the type of person you would be if you had gone through or done the things your character had.

    But you should instead become the character, a person unto itself, seperatefrom your own identity. That is traditional acting, and I beleve that is how writing should be approached.

    But that’s my opinion.

    Excellent article! Really had me thinking, which is always useful. Have a great day!

  12. This is my first book. I have procrastinated it for 40 years. Finally the day came where i had to start. I had heard somewhere if you breath life into a character he/she will tell you their story – so i started and like magic the story unfolded and just rolled along for 35,000 words all (pretty much) discursive. I was/am ok with that I knew i would have to go back and find out more about the characters, create dialog (there is virtually none at this point) and no real description of place (the reason i read is to visit some distinct place, my favorite writers excel at this). NOW i have stopped (pretty much) writing and am stumbling around trying to figure out how to write dialog and describe fog. Telling the story was a real high and loads of fun – not like work at all. And now i am doing everything i can (this post for example) to avoid writing. How can i write dialog when am not even a good listener? How can i describe a place when i am a visual artist (photo)? HELP ME PLEASE.

  13. I’ve been writing poetry since 1979. Nevertheless, this is my first book. The only major problem I encountered while writing it over the last eight (8) years was procrastination. Now that everything is on paper, in order to bring the book to life, I realize it needs dialog. But, dialoging for me is a nightmare. Although I knew my two characters very well, I can’t interview them because they’re deceased. Consequently, I need to complete what I began eight (8) years ago. Please help me. Thank you so much.

  14. On a different level than that, my characters start very different from me, but before I can get the story down, I am in them. It doesn’t matter if it’s Helen, the psychotically stoic and macho police officer, or her spineless, self-indulgent rageaholic husband Harvey. They’re me. I think that until I can understand both the antagonist and the hero enough to feel like it’s me vs. me, I’m unqualified to write the story.

    Of course, I certainly hope they don’t talk exactly like me. I should check and see if they do that.

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