Where do great characters come from? What is the difference between a character who steps off the page and one who is little more than a shade? And how can we be the writer who crosses the divide between the former and the latter?
This is a topic big enough for several posts…and one waaaaayyyy bigger than I can tackle in its entirety at six in the morning.
Let’s start in the most obvious place. Characters, like babies, are born intact from us. They spring from our foreheads like little Athenas. Which means that they’ve got to be whole to begin with.
For me, that means carrying the creature to its full gestation. Not writing him or her until he/she is ready to be written; until he or she walks around inside me, talking, thinking, acting…behaving like a real being.
But how do we prepare them for that voyage into the daylight?
This topic came up in a discussion with my writer friend Donna. And it’s as deep as a well.
For some writers, characters are objective things. Their being is imposed upon them from the outside. We pose them like stick figures. We walk them like puppets from room to room of the story. We ask ourselves what they might do in a given situation.
My process is different.
I inhabit characters from the inside. I grow them from there. I wear them until I am small inside them, like David Byrne in his Big Suit. I feel their lives, their actions, their emotions. I give myself willingly to the soul that is Not-Me.
This is a kind of schizophrenia, I believe.
And the process has unexpected issues.
The created being often supplants those of flesh and blood in my life—or cohabits with them. They are as real, as true, to me as my friends are. I could tell you, if asked, what they eat for breakfast. I breathe as they do.
I remember one scene in particular. In The Spiritkeeper. A break between two loving people. A return to a silent house; a dwelling in a spirit so emptied by loss that one can do nothing but sit motionless in a chair for hours.
In another scene, near the end of Everything, living the character asked me to change myself in such a way, to reach for such a cosmic place, that I frankly wondered whether a sane person could come back from there.
The difference is clear to me, characters created in this way and those who aren’t. The character of a husband in Spiritkeeper is little more than a device. I didn’t want to spend the time being him. I think he reads that way.
The result of this method acting is, I hope, characters that are as alive for the reader as they are for me…characters who live independent of the page, long after the reading is done.
I know that they remain with me. They were alive in the writing. They still are.