Friday, October 28, 2011

Five Ways I Become My Character

In a recent post, author JM Tohline (THE GREAT LENORE) reviews the importance of being completely submerged in your writing:

If you are writing in first person, you need to figure out what it will take for you to truly become that character who is writing. As an author, or as an aspiring author, you should be like those stories you read about actors who so fully become the characters they are portraying, they have a hard time returning to their normal self at the end of the day of filming, or when the production of the movie wraps up.

To prepare for her role in The Color Purple, Oprah Winfrey experienced a 24-hour slavery stimulation, which included being tied up and blindfolded.  Before writing The Apostle, Brad Thor traveled to Afghanistan to conduct research for his plot and setting.  And prior to her 2011 Grammy performance, Lady Gaga spent 72 consecutive hours inside a giant egg so she could be born on stage.

Many writers work around hectic schedules; jobs, classes, and chores often reduce time at our computers, even though we wish our stories could be the only task needing our attention.  Juggling multiple labors leads to feelings of inconsistency; we have days when our drive and ambition fall short.  Gaps between writing sessions disconnect us from our characters.  And when our vision becomes blurry, we catch ourselves spending more time bringing the picture into focus than actually producing. 

Not everyone has these problems, but many of us do.  Especially me.

My best work is produced when I'm fully in the zone.  For me, that means leaving my body and entering another; or, allowing my protagonist to "plug" his brain in mine.  His thoughts, emotions, and issues are downloaded in my head.  My WIP unfolds when I am my character; when my voice is silenced and his voice is heard.


1.  Music: I create the playlists Michael has on his iPod and loop them when writing.  The key is discovering which of my character's favorite songs inspire me.  I can't listen to a song simply because he would; the song must speak to me as much as it does him, even if we interpret the lyrics differently.

2.  Family Dinners: My protagonist is a 15yo male who eats with his family every night.  There are no exceptions in that household.  As the writer, I sacrifice my sanity and have dinner with my parents before writing these scenes.  And when my brother joins them, I try to be available for the full family dinner experience.

3.  Homework: Michael is a gifted ninth grade student who takes academics seriously.  He spends hours each night reading, studying, and completing school projects.  It's been a few years since I lived that lifestyle, so yes, I print assignments from the Internet and complete them myself.  In the last year, I solved geometry proofs, read and watched The Crucible, and researched the Civil Rights movement (okay, the last one was easy since I taught the unit - I just brushed up a bit).

4.  Television: Michael has little time for TV, but watches two shows religiously.  I never miss an episode. 

5.  Living The Experience: Sometimes it's not as easy as doing what Michael does.  For example, if he is nervous sneaking out at night, I can't do the same and feel that fear of being caught.  But I can put myself in a similar situation creating the same reaction, then record what I felt and translate it to Michael's character.  It's the hardest to pull off, but it's also the most rewarding.

In what ways do you become your character(s)?


  1. You are so right. It is so hard when I'm in "character" to come out. I only want to be in the zone. You're right in it's not easy when juggling so many other things.
    My main thing is music. That usually can get me in the mood and put me into character.

  2. Living the experience would be impossible for me, but I do rely on music to place myself in his situations.

  3. Fascinating examples! Nice list of how to get into your character, too. Me? Well, when I was writing SHAPERS (sci-fi novel about losing weight) I tried to lose five measly pounds. Not as easy as it looks, trust me!

  4. Wow, that's dedication, Paul. I tend to relate to my characters on a more emotional level, really experiencing their thoughts. I cry when they do, feel the pain and torment they suffer. Some days are rough, which is why I tend to have sarcastic sidekicks. They lighten the scenes and my mood too!


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