Are you an author who’d rather spend time with your fictional creations than with a real significant somebody who’s waiting in the next room?
Are you in love with your characters?
An intimate relationship
As an editor, I know how emotionally involved authors become with the people in their books. A story is always more successful when the writer inhabits and holds these alter egos close to the heart.
Fictional characters may take on a life of their own, surprising their creators with the twists and turns the story may take. But the source of the character’s identity and the ultimate guide to where they came from and where they are going remains only the author.
That’s why authors enter into an intimate relationship, a kind of lopsided romance with their characters, no matter how virtuous or flawed they may turn out to be. No part of writing a novel is more important than this visceral, under the skin, psychological connection.
The reality of your character’s existence
Whether the story is told as a first person narrative or omniscient third person focused on a character’s exclusive point of view, the author must live with their protagonist and become committed to the reality of their existence.
This means creating a back-story life, whether all of it is eventually used in the book or not. A place of birth, family of origin, biological parents, siblings, family and friends. Plus the teachers, mentors, childhood development, teen years and coming of age to the point where the book’s story begins.
Like any good and committed lover, the author must be honest and accepting of all the character’s weaknesses and strengths, including the less then admirable, the vulnerable, as well as the heroic.
It’s important, therefore, that authors research and do their homework in creating the characters they care about the most.
Creating a back-story life
1. Know how your character speaks. In fact speak the lines out loud to be sure the words capture an idiosyncratic style, background, accent — different from anyone else in the book.
2. Have a portrait in your mind of how the character looks, including height, weight, skin color, hair, posture. How they smell. Their favorite foods.
3. Know how they dress from coat to underwear, even if it never appears in the light of day.
4. Inhabit the character’s deepest feelings – both admirable and not, so long as they are authentic and true to the person’s role and experience.
5. Understand their habits and skills, including special talents, obsessions, fears and aversions, traits found far beneath what the other characters in the book may perceive or understand.
Notable alter egos
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about Nick Carroway with a far deeper self-identification than he felt with the enigmatic Gatsby.
Virginia Woolf knew exactly what Mrs. Dalloway was thinking in her most private thoughts, as she created a heroine who was not so honest to either her husband Richard or former romantic interest Peter Walsh.
A friend, the mystery writer Rosemary Harris is so fond of the sidekick character “Babe” in her Dirty Business mystery series that she wrote a short story prequel that was all about Babe and published separately. Rosemary says she dearly loves Babe as a part of her own personality; someone who couldn’t be the main character but is essential to the writer’s enjoying and animating the story’s level of humor and balance with the more heinous deeds.
“My characters force me to adopt their hobbies”
Best-selling author Patricia Cornwell inhabits and writes from the inside of “Kay Scarpetta,” the fictional forensic pathologist who is the lead sleuth in a number of her books.
To research the Scarpetta books, Cornwell hung out in a coroner’s morgue to get acquainted with forensic corpse dissection, learned to fly a helicopter, and overcame her aversion to scuba diving so she could experience the necessary verisimilitude for a scene about a deep sea body search.
Take a look at this Cornwell book trailer, not only to hear the author describe her own intense process of bringing her characters to life, but also to watch an expertly produced work of author promotion.
Is it love?
Is that devotion? Commitment? Affection?
You bet, and more. It’s what makes writing fun and rewarding. If you achieve that level of love for at least one character in every one of your books, your readers will benefit in the end.
How about you?
How about you? Have you fallen in love with your characters? Anything you’d like to share?