Friday, February 26, 2010

Blog Chain: I'm a Schizo and So Am I.

Welcome to another awesome blog chain.  This one is brought to you by the fantastic Cole, who will be 29 forever (HAPPY BIRTHDAY!).  Her question is:

How do you get inside your character's world?

Usually with a crowbar and some rope.  Oh.  Characters.  Got it.  I thought you meant--

The real answer is:  any way I can.  Sometimes characters come up and start shouting in my ear.  They tell me everything there is to know about them and lots of stuff I don't want to know.  But sometimes they're shy and they string me along and getting info is like stealing candy from babies (which is NOT easy, btw..babies scream loud...and they bite).

There are some things I do to help me figure out my character's world.  I like to find pictures of them.  Be it actors or models or random people on the street.  For example, the physical appearance for my MC in Deathday Letter is modeled after this dude, who plays on a show called GREEK.  There are differences of course, but it gave me a place to start.

I also use wiki's.  You know, like wikipedia.  What I do is start writing info about my story and then that leads to more and more.  If you know how a wiki works, the articles can start to expand exponentially, but it's a great way to get loads of info down.

Another way is to handwrite.  I'm a fast typist, but when my MC clams up, I find that talking to him or her via a fountain pen and a cool notebook helps me connect.

The best way though to get into my character's world is to just listen.  Example:  I got this story in my head about this teenage boy who was living in a hospital.  I didn't know why or what he was doing.  I didn't know his real name or anything.  Just that he was living in a hospital.  I wanted to know why, but my MC wasn't talking about it.  He did talk about a lot of other stuff though.  So I followed him around. I watched LIFE IN THE ER, I drew on my own experiences from EMT classes and the shifts I did in hospitals and on ambulances.  Sometimes he told me stuff and I never knew what was true, but he told me his routine and introduced me to his friends.  66k words later, I knew everything I needed to know.

I've done everything to get into a character's world from contacting a magician, to stalking Google street view, to talking with a bad British accent to my dog.  But the thing that worked the best is just listening to my characters.  They give me all the info I need to know.

So I guess I'm the last link in this chain, so catch us again on March 1 when Eric, who wrote the post before me, starts off.  Good luck, Eric!


  1. Great process! I also like to use pictures of real people that resemble my characters. I stick them all over the wall above my desk. My husband thinks it's creepy.

  2. Oh gee thanks, Shaun. Now you've jinxed me!

    This is an interesting view into your process though. I really like the idea of you following the character around in the hospital. I can relate to that very well.

    Now I'm off to drink some tea, calm my nerves, and think up a good question :)

  3. B.J. - I think any non-writer person probably thinks it's creepy. When I'm into a story, my wall probably looks like a strange serial killer wall-of-shame.

    Eric- You'll do great!

  4. "Just listen"...I love that. It is so true!! great job Shaun.

  5. You can't get inside their world, because their world IS YOU, the writer. There's not need to find a way in, because you control everything. Despite popular belief, characters don't have free will. They only have what you create for them.

    Not to try and ruin the discussion, but this is just a pet peeve of mine.

  6. Anon 4:38 - Hey there! You're totally entitled to your opinion, in fact I welcome it. And you may be right in a very technical and limited way, however when you create characters that are well fleshed out, you give them a kind of internal logic. Once you've been writing that character for such a long time, you the writer may want your character to do one thing, but the internal logic you've created for that character will let you know that that's NOT what they'd do. That's what writers talk about when we talk about characters coming alive and feeling real.

    And we we talk about getting into a character's world we mean that we immerse ourselves in the things our characters do. For example, if I write a character who's a dentist, I'm doing to do everything I can to learn about dentistry, to immerse myself in that world so that I can think the way my character would logically think.

    The success of the Twilight and Harry Potter books is an example of how real well fleshed out characters can be to people.

    And when you say characters don't have free will, again, you're correct, but forcing characters to do things that don't go along with their natural logic makes for bad stories. Sometimes letting characters lead the way is how you find out about them.

    I think, in the end, it's a matter of opinion, but anyone who's ever loosened their grip on the story and experienced that moment when the characters feel real and make their own decisions, can tell you that, not only is it freeing, but it makes for better storytelling.

  7. In response to Anon, I initially may set my characters down on the page, and sometimes I truly do need to drag them into the plot - yes, of course I create who they are - BUT it doesn't usually take too long before I'm having to run to keep pace with them. It's called imagination.

    I really enjoyed stumbling over this post, it's fascinating to hear how you flesh out your characters, and what it is that works for you.

  8. I also use pictures and wikis and fountain pends. It sounds like we have a very similar world-building, character-shaping process. I look forward to reading your book later this year.

  9. Great post, Shaun :) And great response to boot! I completely agree. My characters in my WIP live in Niceville, FL. I can't find Niceville inside of me as I've only been there once, so real research was needed and I immersed myself in real estate listings and google maps. Only then could I discover my character's surroundings to better understand them.

  10. Love your example of the way you got into the life of your hospital character - it's interesting how you drew on a variety of resources from dong research to your own personal experiences.

  11. Love the title!

    I find that my characters often surprise me when I listen to them.

  12. Very good argument, sir. Well said.

    And I totally see why a lot of writers trick themselves into thinking this way, as a way to help them drive their plot and story in a consistent and psuedo-organic manner. It's clearly a useful tool for many, many writers. And I am definitely in the minority with my opinion.

    But, alas, it is still merely a trick. You are tricking yourself into thinking your character is controlling where the story goes and is making their own decisions, so to speak. And if that helps you write, then so be it, more power to you, seriously. It doesn't make someone any less of a good/great/fantastic writer at all.

    I mean, even I will admit that there are times when I'm like, "Okay, what would my character do here?" However, it's more a question for myself to keep his actions consistent throughout. But the whole time I know that it was my decision, not thiers as they don't exist and I create the way they are and act and what they choose.

    But no one way is better than the other of course. It just bothers me when people talk about their characters, "doing things unexpectedly and on their own." It just makes me want to say, "No, they didn't." It was only unexpected because deep down that's what YOU as the creator wanted, otherwise it wouldn't be so.

    So just a technical thing that gets my goat, you know?

    Good post by the way. I love discussion.

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  14. Anon: Me too! I love trying to see other sides of the coin. And you make some great points. I was having this conversation somewhere else and someone made the point that writers can go too far in the other direction by letting the character's whims hijack a perfectly good story. I wish I could remember where it was. But it's absolutely correct. We're writinging the stories and making the choices.

    Getting lost in a good book is why I became a writer. I cut my teeth on A Wrinkle in Time and Judy Blume books and The Dark is Rising Sequence. Those worlds and those characters sucked me in. They transported me. While I was nestled warm between their pages, the outside world didn't exist. Those characters, the ones created by the authors I admired, were sometimes more real to me than whatever else was going on in my life. They were a refuge.

    So I can't help but think that if I can't lose myself in my own characters--if they're not real to me--how are people reading going to do it?

    Maybe it's madness, but I'm on the crazy train!

    I hope you'll keep coming by!

  15. Excellent post! I'm with you on the handwriting to get into my character. That technique works so well!


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