Writers – are we all amateur psychologists?

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Make yourself comfortable on the couch…and tell me, how does this make you feel?

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When we write fiction, we play God within the boundaries of our own created world. Depending on the genre, we might invent a brand-new race of beings, decide what stage of development their civilisation (if we decide to even give them one) has reached and set up the conditions of their planetary system.

In other genres, we might set the limits on magic that can be used, whether the land is forest or desert, decide if vampires  turn into charcoal at the merest hint of daylight or if they just sparkle and look moody (you know who I’m talking about).

Even if you’re writing contemporary tales set in real cities (*raises hand*), the writer still must lay out a basic plan of many of the character’s lives right up to the point where we first meet them and – yes, I’m finally getting to the point – why they act the way they do.

In order to create a credible and engaging story, we must delve deep into a character’s motives and feelings as well as thoroughly document (even if we don’t publish) that character’s life history. Does that sound boring? Dull and unnecessary? Too much planning when all you want to do is write? Sure, you could write a female character who hates all men and sticks to that pattern throughout the book. But an interested reader will certainly, after a few chapters of your misandrous main character spitting fire and venom at her colleagues, begin to wonder ‘what’s with her? Why is she like this?’

As two-dimensional ‘evil villains’ have risen to the top of the ‘do not create’ list, shallow main characters are very close behind.

Each of us is the sum of our own experiences, so why wouldn’t a fictional character be exactly the same? Naturally, they would tend to be larger than life, otherwise they would be no more interesting that the average Joe. But for them to have arrived at the point where we pick up the book and begin to journey with them, haven’t they had a childhood, teenage years, formative characters all around them?

But, you might ask, what if my character was grown in a lab and has just escaped? Then you have an excellent blank canvas with which to view our society through their eyes. Remember, even the android Data (Star Trek, if you didn’t know) who was created in his adult form, was an extraordinary character and as we later learned, had a fascinating back-story.

But with more down-to-earth (or whatever planet you’ve chosen) characters, the shape of their mould (that’s not a medical term, by the way) can make the difference between a two- and a three-dimensional reading experience. Most would have had a childhood and at least a few years of life which would have left lingering impressions on their psyche. And the more profund the experience, the stronger the effect upon their thinking.

If you’re not sure how to do this, then this is the point where you get to play psychologist. If you have already created your character, or have a good idea how your character is going to turn out, ask yourself ‘why would they be like this?’ Go back down the line of their life and work out what event(s) set them off down this path; what turned them from being a happy child / teenager / adult into the person that you, the writer, need them to be? After all, we are born as innocents. It’s our circumstances that mould us – and perhaps to a degree, our genes do too.

Something I’ve found  to be very useful is my interest in time travel, particularly my fascination with turning points. Most of you will remember ‘Back to the Future’ and the event that flipped Marty McFly’s forty-something father from a wimp into a confident writer. He was backed into a corner by a bully and came out fighting – something that would never have happened without the intervention of his future son. That was a turning point – something that set him along a different path. Darth Vader? He began his slip towards darkness because he was forbidden from falling in love. In ‘Jersey Girl’, Ben Affleck’s successful life was turned upside down when his wife died giving birth to their daughter. You can probably think of many others.

Sometimes the causes can be more subtle. Would a beautiful and smart girl have different college experiences to a plain, smart girl? How would a parent’s estrangement affect a small child? Would a minor physical defect have a cumulative effect on a character’s confidence?

The flip side of this is; how will your character change throughout the story? Will they shed their emotional burdens and grow as a person? Will their baggage drag them down even further? Are they able to realise what they need to do as a person in order to change? Remember the Twelve Steps – the first step to a cure is to admit that there is a problem. As writers we must not only create the problem, we need to envisage the cure…or at least, the consequences.

For a reader to empathise fully, it is also important that the character can be reached and that there is hope of redemption (if they are low), satisfaction and justice (if they are malevolent) or happiness (if they are being oppressed). That way, the reader can engage and share the journey, whether it is good or bad. This is where stereotypical evil villains fail – they have nothing that a reader can empathise with.

Have you found a creative way to twist your character’s life from the straight and narrow? What have you done to add that third dimension to your character’s psyche?

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Reader Appreciation Award

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This post has been a long time due and so, for that, I apologise.

The whirl of completing my Twelfth Draft, the decision to ePublish and the creating of my book cover scoured my brain of much of my daily to-do list.

Anyway, last month I was fortunate enough to receive a nomination for the Reader Appreciation Award, not once but twice!

Thank you Mymagical escape (I tried to find your name on your blog, but couldn’t) for this award.   I love the image – it just so happens that big, bright sunflowers are a favourite of mine.

Also, Sonya Loveday nominated me the following day, a lovely thought.

The conditions of this award seem to be similar to those of the Liebster and Lovely Blog awards.

I tried to back-track through Mymagicalescape’s nominator, Pat Wood or as I like to think of her, Caress Arborea *winks*, but I couldn’t find any specific conditions listed on her blog.

Sonya mentions that the Reader Appreciation Award Foundation stipulate six nominations, so I will do that, but add in Mymagicalescape’s format and write seven things about myself first – stuff that I haven’t already said after receiving previous nominations.

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1. I believe in Angels – just not necessarily the kind that appear in popular literature.

2. I live in the same town as Jenna Burtenshaw and have received a great deal of encouragement from her.

3.  It was my wife’s tottering stack of vampire novels that compelled me to write ‘A Construct of Angels’.

4.  Movie soundtracks inspire my writing.

5.  My ‘day job’ takes me all over the UK.  75% of the time it gifts me writing opportunities that I wouldn’t otherwise enjoy.

6. Currently, my favourite writing tool is my Acer Netbook.

7. I am the closest I have ever been to publishing a book and cannot quite believe it.

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Now, the nominations;

I’m supposed to nominate six bloggers for this Reader Appreciation award, so here are my choices;

1. Candace Knoebel

2. Ryan Casey

3. M D Kenning

4. Sonya Loveday

5. Carly Sarah

6. Michelle Proulx

7. Abusively Baboozan

8. Pat Wood blogging

Oops – I can’t count.  I know Candace, Sonya and Carlyysarah had already been nominated by Mymagicalescape and Pat Wood nominated her in the first place, but I love them so much, I felt compelled to repeat the nomination.

Who’s to say that I can’t?  :p

Oh, oh.  Yellow card approaching from the Reader Appreciation Award Foundation.

Enjoy, bask if you like, but don’t forget to spread the love!

 

Write on!

Do you empathise with your characters?

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Do you?

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?

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