Many authors I know tend to love character-building exercises, digging deep into research to create characters with fully fleshed backstories, depth, and nuance (even if it sometimes diverts us into rabbit warrens of procrastination…).
But the richest source for developing characters with dimension and vividness is one I frequently see authors underutilizing, even though it’s literally right under (or behind) their noses: themselves.
In a recent episode of the Smartless podcast, which admittedly I probably cite too often on the blog (but seriously, it’s not just wonderfully fun but often offers valuable insight into the processes and lives of creatives), actor Mike Myers related a story about legendary director Mike Nichols (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, The Graduate, Silkwood, and many more classics).
Over what he called “an unbelievable master class of a lunch” with Nichols, Myers asked one of Hollywood’s most gifted directors about creating characters: “What’s your number one direction?”
Nichols replied, “I say to the actor, ‘Look at the character and go, I am like that when…’”
Regardless of your experience, background or situation in life, if you are a sentient creature I’d venture to say you have experienced some version of every emotion, every reaction, every decision or conflict of any character in any story you might write.
Perhaps not to the same levels as your character, especially in fiction, which tends to focus on life’s extreme highs and lows. Maybe you haven’t been stalked by a killer, or lost a close loved one to tragedy, or experienced homelessness—but you’ve undoubtedly felt the fear of an unknown threat or danger…the pain and grief of losing something you loved deeply…uncertainty, insecurity, shame, feelings of failure or the judgment of others, and a myriad other experiences and emotions that are invaluable tools for creating affecting, vivid, resonant characters for your stories.
That’s fertile ground authors can harvest from. Yet more often than I would expect, I see writers take emotional shortcuts in stories. They may describe a character’s horror or pain or embarrassment, but the reader isn’t yet feeling that with the character, so it doesn’t have the visceral impact it could have that really brings story and character to life.
Put Yourself in Your Character’s Skin
In my acting days, we called this technique “Method acting,” the Stanislavski technique, where the actor imagines some moment in their own life when they experienced something similar to what the character they are portraying is going through.
If a character is racked with grief over, say the loss of a child, that actor may be able to tap into some other profoundly affecting loss that hits on the same emotions and gives her access to them: perhaps losing a beloved pet, a parent, a friend. Or maybe they can liken it to the experience of a terrible breakup or heartbreak.
Even if someone has experienced no directly similar loss or grief, there may be life experiences they’ve had that correlate. Perhaps they flunked out of their dream college, lost a job that was important to them, mourned the divorce of their own parents when they were a child and the loss of security and innocence that resulted, or even something as seemingly innocuous as a favorite childhood toy, lost forever when left behind on a family vacation.
Pain, sorrow, grief—these emotions are universal, as are all emotions. They’re the instruments we all already have inside us, ready to play in whatever way our stories may demand.
But fully making use of this powerful personal tool for your writing requires a great deal of self-awareness, mindfulness, and a willingness to go into the painful places that many of us often try to avoid. It’s Red Smith’s famous truism about writing (often misattributed to Hemingway, as most good writing quotes are): “You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.”
That doesn’t mean you have to plunge straight into the maw of all your darkest life experiences. It simply means learning how to pay attention to your own thoughts, reactions, feelings in those heightened moments of your life that are the soul of story. You are experiencing the thing, but a part of you is also observing your experience of the thing.
This is the very foundation of mindfulness meditation, and if you are meditator that’s excellent training for this objective, observational skill as a writer. But so is therapy. So is just the normal introspection that many writers share. So is reading psychology books and other publications to enhance your understanding of why you do the things you may do, why you feel what you may feel, and especially what misconceptions you may have unconsciously formed that are influencing your decisions and reactions and dictating the shape of your life.
And then, as all good writers do, you extrapolate from what you know into the “what if?”
Pay Attention to Yourself
In moments of high emotion or strong reaction, first notice what that feels like inside you–the actual sensations. For instance, let’s say a colleague denigrates one of your ideas at work to your boss, and you react with a flare of anger.
Even as you experience the emotion and reaction viscerally, see if you can also notice objectively, to some degree, how it feels inside you. Perhaps it’s a hot, flashing feeling, or a slow cold crawl. Digging deeper, you might notice your heart rate increasing, your jaw clenched, your forehead tight, your breathing a little shallow.
If you want to get really analytical and removed about it, try to catch yourself in a mirror in moments like this. Perhaps you’ll see your eyebrows pull together, the lines in your face deepen, your lips thin.
Now you’ve got descriptive fodder for the next time you’re writing a character feeling any type of anger or annoyance—and for describing a character observing that reaction in another character.
Then, when that first flare of emotion or reaction cools a bit, go even deeper and analyze what caused it. Even if—perhaps especially if—you don’t think of yourself as an especially angry person, or the issue at hand is a minor one, or the colleague not someone important to you or influential with your boss, why might the incident have pissed you off so much?
A little mindful digging often brings some potential initial insights:
- Perhaps the situation felt unfair to you
- Maybe you felt unappreciated or undermined by someone you trusted
- You may have gone into knee-jerk self-defense mode
- The incident might have made you doubt or question your own abilities
But keep digging deeper. There are concrete reasons we react the way we do, and they are a legacy of our past experiences, our background, our upbringing, etc. Something in the present moment is hitting a chord from your past that deeply affected you. It might be directly related or only tangentially—but the core feeling or dynamic is similar and strikes that same nerve.
For instance, let’s say the first boy you had a crush on wound up asking your sister out instead. That might account for the deeper feelings behind your angry reaction to your coworker:
- Maybe the present situation mirrors your feelings of unfairness from the past—you liked that boy first!
- Even if your sister didn’t know about your crush or you accepted that the boy liked her and not you, perhaps you felt painfully rejected by him (unappreciated), and betrayed by her (undermined).
- When we perceive an attack, we often react with counterattack. Perhaps in the situation with your crush you felt you couldn’t—but that long-suppressed self-defense impulse roars up now.
- Maybe at the time you wondered what was wrong with you, or felt inadequate in comparison with your sister, and those same vulnerable feelings rush through you now.
This is juicy material to work with in developing your character’s motivations and reactions to any situation, the kind of depth and insight into their inner life that makes characters feel fully developed, real, and relatable to readers.
And the key to unlocking it lies in being able to simply notice your own rich emotional life that’s part of you day after day after day. It doesn’t even have to be something as impactful as the above work example. Even minor moments engender reactions you can observe and analyze, often more easily than the more powerful or painful ones.
Maybe someone cuts you off in traffic, or you tear your favorite shirt, or your dog won’t come inside when you call him when you’re already late for an appointment. In each case, you can examine your annoyance or irritation or impatience or anger or sorrow—we are all a symphony of emotions and reactions, none of which may be like anyone else’s. Then file it away in your creative database for later harvesting.
As an added personal bonus, you may quickly find that the mere act of observing your own reactions—separating yourself from them even that fraction, even amid powerful or disturbing emotions—gives you some mental and emotional distance from them. It helps you lessen your reactivity, and frees you to more rationally respond in a productive way instead.
In our hypothetical example, perhaps you manage to keep yourself from firing off an incendiary email you might have later regretted, and to handle the situation with grace, avoid burning a bridge, and soothe your own pain.
This is my interpretation of the old saw to “write what you know”—not to limit yourself to topics that directly reflect your own lived experience, but to use those deeply personal and intimate experiences as seeds for growing whatever gorgeous, vivid garden you choose.
How about you, authors—do you mine your own rich emotional life and experiences in fleshing out your characters? How do you let yourself delve fully into what they may be going through in a way that brings it to life and makes it feel visceral?