I mean really get down into the mud with them and feel their pain as if it was your own?
In this age of guts, gore and death on both the big and the small screen, it’s all too easy to sit back and munch popcorn as a larger-than-life action figure takes a bullet, then fights on to the expected victory. The heroine, meanwhile, hangs by a single finger over a fatal drop before she is rescued in the very last instant by a strong grip around her slender wrist.
Yeah, sure he groans as the bullet buries itself in his flesh. She shrieks as her finger slips.
But what do they really feel? Can you, as a writer, firstly imagine the pain, the sheer terror that these characters ought to be feeling? And can you, secondly, convince the reader that these unfortunate, suffering characters know that a life-stopping moment is but a heartbeat away? We are all buzzing bags of emotion, not unfeeling machines. Readers know this – and we must deliver.
I’ve dreamed of plunging to my death in a car, then woken in a cold, shaking sweat, hardly able to convince myself that I’d survived. In one brief moment, I’d mentally wrapped up my life, regretted things unfinished, and wondered if non-corporeal existence or oblivion awaited me. Then; bang; I was a crumpled statistic – but one with an answer. One with an edge to create better death scenes; and to recognise shallow ones. And although it was a dream, I’d been there. I’d actually felt it.
If you’re in any doubt that you are tuned into your characters, retire to a quiet place after you’ve written your action sequence. Become one with your character of choice. Climb into their skin, then re-run the action. Hang from a stone gargoyle one hundred storeys above the city. Plunge over a waterfall, not knowing if you’re going to see the next minute. Switch off all the lights and spin around three times to experience some of the disorientation of being inside a darkened warehouse (but please don’t injure yourself – even if you are researching pain!).
Better still, if the geography or architecture allows, visit the closest possible parallels to your scene and lean over that edge; feel the power of the wind and water. Picture the last seconds of your life as gravity claims its prize.
Your character would.
Imagine how you’d feel if someone close to you went over the edge instead; feel that anger, that helplessness, that utter and permanent loss.
And relax…breathe. Then get it down on paper / screen.
I’ve dealt largely with falls so far. Other fates are available, naturally.
And of course, this technique doesn’t just apply to action scenes.
Pain is not the only emotion;
Betrayal? Your best friend has just eloped with your significant other / taken your expensive car / smuggled out your priceless show cat. Get angry; feel betrayed. Just don’t call that friend until you’ve simmered down and put your hurt and anger into black-and-white.
Love? A trickier one this, one that relies on previous experience. Think of it as the ultimate head-and-heart battle. Except that the head belongs to an adult, and the heart is a wanton, wailing, selfish four-year-old that (almost) always gets their way. How wrenching would that be as an internal monologue?
Fear? There are many shades of fear, too many to list here. Briefly, though; Fear of death (brief pain and it’s all over – but you might leave everything unfinished); Fear of loss – what is it that you could not stand to exist without? Fear of change; your comfort zone – obliterated.
Feel them all – no, really. Feel them all. And then create characters that we can really relate to – and emotions that stir our own.
What better than a novel that takes us upon a roller-coaster ride that leaves us emotionally wrought, but thoroughly satisfied?
For further reading I’d recommend Rivet your readers with Deep POV. Please note that I am in no way affiliated with this work – I just found it to be instructive.
So, over to you;
What techniques do you use to get beneath your character’s skin?
Do you perform mental walk-throughs?
Do you research on-line for the experiences of others, or even query them face-to-face?