Getting Into Character

A questiony one today.

Characters need to have voice, otherwise the story falls flat. I’m pretty sure I’m not saying anything particularly controversial there – voice is how the author conveys character through things like dialogue and action, rather than just telling the audience how they’re supposed to feel about a cardboard cutout. Voice is like acting for writers.

It’s also one of the most difficult, at least for me. And I get the feeling it’s a bit of a thing for other people as well, given the number of authors I hear talking about their characters taking control of the story and doing things on their own. I definitely think that stems from a character’s voice: When the author tries to do something ‘out of character’ they lose the voice and it just feels wrong. It also makes it very hard for people to describe how to write character – you end up trailing off into nebulous terms like “Well, you just kind of get to know them and then you understand what’s in character and what isn’t …” I, personally, fall prey to this quite a lot. I have a lot of trouble explaining how I write characters, but I know when it’s not working.

All of which means it can be very difficult to figure out what to do when a character just isn’t working. Because authors tend to think of characters in these nebulous terms, we can’t pinpoint problems like we can for other things. If our prose isn’t ‘flowing’, we can troubleshoot by looking for problems like repeated words or sentence structures, or not enough variance in sentence length. If we have problems in plot holes, it’s usually pretty obvious to spot those, though figuring out the solution can often be a bit trickier. You can spot slow pacing or a tension plot that’s too linear. But when a character just seems stuck, we don’t have the tools to point to the technical issue.

I’m always sort of reminded of the pigeons in the Skinner box experiment – when the treats weren’t always on a ‘push button once to receive one treat’ schedule, they started developing superstition, trying to figure out what combination of actions made the button give treats on specific occasions. Of course, the button was on a random schedule, but the pigeons had no concept of that, so they’d develop odd rituals like flapping and spinning around before pushing the button, hoping that it would make the button gods obey them. It can feel pretty similar with authors sometimes. Character is stuck? Time to go for a walk, drink a specific type of tea, and take a shower BUT NEVER IN THAT ORDER.

Personally, I like to go for walks (sometimes trying to adopt the character’s body-language as I go, which can generate some very odd looks for my stranger characters), or write smaller stories revolving around that character to try and work my way through it. Imagining or writing conversations with the character is especially helpful. Critique Circle has a forum section where you can post a brief character bio and people will ask them questions, which is very helpful for getting into character. I’ve heard of people who use music to put them in a particular character’s ‘mood’, and who create playlists for characters. Writing groups or friends are good for talking through characters and their motivations.

Everyone has their own method, so I’m putting this one out as a question – what do you folks do to get in the headspace of a particular character? What 100% effective, to-die-for methods have I overlooked?

2 thoughts on “Getting Into Character

  1. This is so great to read! I haven’t written alot of material but from what has been completed, i tend to act out sub-consciously as the character. I’ll been on the train thinking about the charcater and then gradually a scene is created and if it’s an emotional moment or scene, i begin to tear up or get really frustarted. It’s insane! The charcater takes over my thoughts (sort of like a hijack) and i’m lost in their world, which really helps me to write as the charctaer. I think, for me, the key is letting the charcaters into your life and allowing them to grow gradully, embrace the moment i guess rather than forcing the development.

    • I think this is the number one reason why a lot of writers suggest you leave a story to percolate in your mind for a while before writing it – so you have time to really get to know the characters in that kind of organic way.

      I totally get frustrated and angry imagining scenes that frustrate my characters too.

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