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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.


Been talking about longer-seeing a lot, lately.

Because I’ve needed to remind myself to do it.

In writing as in life, that need to stand back and look. Without judgment, without fear. A view from a perspective that doesn’t come readily when you’re looking up from the bottom of the well of uncertainty. Where the sky is up there somewhere, even though the easy view isn’t.

That view helped the writing over the weekend, a span half-buried under the demands of the house…rooms torn up in the effort to get the water-damaged rooms fixed…rooms without a square inch of order as I try to get two houses collected into one.

In the chapter—that monstrously technical challenge of a collaboration between two people, one conscious, one not—I discovered that I needed to rob Peter to pay myself; to pull the wiring out of a previous chapter to string together the lights that might shine brighter in this one. Not as hard as I’d thought. Considering the makeup of life, lately, not much would be by comparison. Still have to figure out some really important switches and levers to make the thing work…still faced by an ending that might just be wrong…but the distance gave me…well, distance.

The other revelation was not a far-seeing; instead, it was a glimpse of what will eventually be. A desk, a little cabinet, a matching chair. Put together in a  corner of what will be the office. Three incomplete suggestions of order in a room piled high with stuff I have no idea what to do with. Promising.

Funny, having chaos grow out of order is one thing. It is organic. Natural. An archeology site built out of the leftover bits of days. To claim order out of chaos not of your own making, exactly: tougher. I keep reminding myself with everything I move or store or throw out that another square yard/foot/inch has appeared. Soon that space will double. And triple. Soon, the room will give me enough perspective to let my thoughts wander there.

Like the view of the pasture. Of rain that never showed, in a sky that was soon swept clean.

The view of something more than a foot from one’s eyes. A promise of something better than the undesirable now.

Jittery morning, a cocktail of caffeine and thyroid meds and another (delightful, truly) night of “writer’s brain” that demanded my attention at odd hours all night. New ideas keep speaking to me, from out of nowhere, with virtually no preparation or planning from me—fleshing-out bits, new twists, richenings, quickenings. That’s a good thing, so I can’t complain.

I’ve been trying very very hard to avoid thinking about what’s coming, what’s inevitable: the end of the affair. Finishing something is tough on me. Crushingly tough. Those written people are flesh and blood lovers to me; I do not take abandonment lightly.

Knowing what’s ahead, I’ve tried to keep my eye on the light. I’ve begun thinking of the next idea…one that was started and set aside; an idea so complex and wonderful that it is already daunting me in a delightful way. It is truly bad form to email a new lover while the current one is asleep in the next room, so I have been hesitant and circumspect in courting the idea. I have introduced my new notebook to my old one, in the hope that the good mojo will transfer from one to the other (and yeah, I know how that sounds.)  But for now, as my teeny 70-plus-year-old mom used to say when casting an eye over a nice looking young man, “I’m only looking, I’m not touching.”

And then there is the one-more-thing. The flirtation. A habit I cannot break: Portraiture.

Long before I understand the souls and psyches of characters, I find myself compelled to fix a visual image in my head; a sort of “casting” in which the seed of the possibility is planted. I did it in Eye of the Mind, with the Karel character, especially (that was pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy, back in the day.) In the book I’m working on now, the process is even more acute. Those few friends who know the identities of the current character-models have been sworn to secrecy. If readers wind up figuring it all out on their own, great—but I ain’t tellin’.

I carry photos of the people in my notebook. I keep them on my computer desktop. I add new pix when a found-shot matches an emotion or an attitude or a characteristic expression that reports the character. I playback those shots every time I need to. It’s the same playback button that switches my music soundtrack on; the two are inextricably linked.

Do other writers do this: use portraiture as a tool for character development? Seems strange to write about my practice in this way: These are real people, remember.  I know they are. I can look at them.

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