Monday, February 8, 2010

Out of My Head

Here’s a kind of stupid confession: I used to write out conversations between myself and my characters. For some reason I thought that this was the best way to get to know them, so I would write a literal encounter, like the character suddenly sat down beside me and said hello.

These usually occurred when I was stuck on some aspect of motivation and needed to know why someone did what they did. “I need help on this,” I would write, and the character would inevitably be more than happy to explain it to me. (Side note: If my characters were real, I don’t think that any of them would be quite so pleasant as they managed to be in these instances.)

I think I stopped using this technique around the time I read somewhere that Anne Rice claims she wrote the Lestat novels with the title character whispering the story to her over her shoulder.

But for my purposes, these character conversations often revealed unexpected things. People would spill their deepest secrets. Stoic, unemotional characters would suddenly burst into tears. Weak characters would draw on hidden strengths. Like good therapy, everyone came out feeling better.

As I said, I don’t use this method anymore. My cast of characters in Novel #2 feels more separate from me. I don’t draw on my own neuroses so much in their creation, nor do I understand their every thought or action. Interestingly, I reread a few chapters of Novel #1 last week (after about four months of refusing to let myself open the files) and found that distance has positive effects. I was able to read more objectively, no longer anticipating every word. I caught the stupid typos or redundancies that I had always glossed over before. And, strangest of all, I no longer recognized the characters as pieces of me, but as pieces of who I used to be. My protagonist, who I used to think was myself on paper, actually annoyed me in places.

Becoming enmeshed in a novel is like having your nose to a large painting. You can only work on a few inches at a time and you lose sight of what the entire canvas really looks like. For all you know, you might be working on the Mona Lisa or one of its parodies. Taking a step back, giving yourself time to detach, is both a difficult thing to accomplish and a necessary one. Every time I have imposed breaks on myself, I come out with something positive or learn about some integral piece of the canvas that I had been overlooking.

To return to my original topic, I think that my teenage-self might have had the right idea when trying to get into the characters’ heads, but it’s important to also know when to stop and let them work out their own problems, with the author merely holding onto the reigns. Distance is often crucial to see your creation.



drea moore said...

Completely agreed. Distance always helps to re-analyze work. I've always had intense periods of writing where I slipped into a hermit stage and then intensely social periods. This lasted into my early twenties... it wasn't until recently that I started "evening out." But at different stages of life-- and with different projects--it seems to me that the way in which we "engage" with our characters and learn about them changes. Often it is (in my experience, so for me) on their terms rather than mine. I can't "think" them through all the time. Not even if I want to. Sometimes...yeah...I jokingly blame them. They're characters! They're not real! (Thus easy to blame for the failings of my own subconscious mind--i.e. it can't surface all the time when I want it too if I have ignored it's 'training.')

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