Shelley Widhalm

Writing About Characters, Part I

In Character Inspiration, Characters, Shelley Widhalm, Writing Inspiration on June 14, 2015 at 11:00 am

When I write, I tend to base my characters, at least the females, somewhat on myself, maybe because I find my identity so incredibly interesting or I don’t know any better.

A writer friend asked me if writers have the authority to write about characters different from themselves, and I thought it was a good question to explore, especially considering how I handle my own characters.

To begin this exploration, it’s important that the point-of-view or main character is rounded with a full identity, not a flat or clichéd actor who only engages in action and motion and lacks any depth. Make the character distinct and different from the other characters by using a tag that sets him or her apart, such as physical traits, mannerisms, facial expressions or speech patterns.

Put yourself into the character’s mind and body, and then take yourself out. Start with physical descriptions and sensory details, working your way into the character’s mind and way of thinking. Write from your subconscious and knowledge and experience of other people who aren’t like you as you dig into the character.

As you write about the character—I’ll use Ty Banks, a male musician in my novel “Fire Painter” as an example, because I can’t sing or play an instrument and I’m not male—here are a few things you can do to gather material to build the character’s identity.

  • Empathize or imagine how it feels to be that person. Put yourself in the character’s body physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually and figure out how the character would think when alone and with others.
  • Interview people who remind you of the character to gather up details and sensations about how it feels to play an instrument, be on a stage with bright lights and have punk hair, using my example of the musician.
  • Listen to how other people speak and the words they use. As a general rule, women use more personal pronouns, such as “I,” “you” and “we,” and descriptive terms, while men use more active verbs and fewer adjectives. Women tend to state preferences instead of demands, such as “I would like to see that play,” and use apologetic language, while men are more commanding and do not divulge as much personal information in conversation as do women.
  • Figure out how the character will behave around others and how the character responds physically and emotionally to the plot situations. What is the character’s personality and behavior patterns as he or she grows and changes in response to the plot?

As an example, my book club found that “An Unnecessary Woman,” by Rabih Alameddine, demonstrates how a male writer fails to get into the head of an older woman. He writes about a book-loving, obsessive 72-year-old “unnecessary” woman who translates a favorite book into Arabic every year, then stows it away. The members of the book club said the writing failed to connect them with the main character, because the writer didn’t do a good job of projecting her thoughts and feelings.

Alternatively, Karen Stockett’s “The Help” about African-American maids working in white households during the 1960s is convincing, because she uses the language, mannerisms, identities and details of that time period.

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