People do all kinds of activities. Some really get into gardening, bird watching or fixing cars. Activities can range from minor hobbies to full-time obsessions. For example, Jane Goodall become so involved with chimpanzees that she lived in the jungle for years.
Well, what about authors? How deep do they apply themselves? A nonfiction author can get so involved with the research that they actually become the story. What about a fiction author? That gets a bit more interesting. If the plot takes place in say Scotland, an author can travel there to get a feel for the local scene. Otherwise, there is not a whole lot that an author can do externally other than sit in front of a computer.
What about fictional characters? How involved do fictional writers get involved with their characters? Writers have the option to base characters on people they know. For example, I based one of my minor characters on my Uncle Al. This choice made the dialog fun and relatable to me. However, for my main characters, I would never base them on a real person. There has to some detachment to allow the freedom to explore all plot possibilities. For example, I could never allow Uncle Al to kill, fall in love or behave badly [be a protagonist.] That would be wrong on many levels. Uncle Al flying an X-Wing fighter like Luke Skywalker? Nope.
To build a character, I give them a set of traits and I use this foundation to form reactions to situations. In order to determine their reactions, I have to adapt their mindset and get inside their personality. This is even true when this character has a vastly different personality than my own.
Overall, it’s fun and interesting to briefly become another person. I like getting characters into trouble and then pulling “myself” out.
Let’s take an example in my first book. The character Grace had to decide if the character James was worthy of her secret. This is a big choice required that required a lot of soul searching on her part. There would be consequences for revealing her secret and extreme consequences if James abused her secret. As an author, I knew what her choice was going to be because the entire plot of the book was about revealing the secret. However, the reader was unaware of this. In order to keep the reader's interest, I had to prolong her decision. This required me to “think like Grace” by getting deep into her mindset. I went over her motivations and her trepidations many times. Eventually, she had to blindly trust James, and this was pure agony.
At the same time, I had to get into the mindset of James. He wanted to know the secret, but he was afraid of her. He had to overcome his fears of her to go past the point of no return. It was a deep and gritty decision that resulted in great dialog and insight into his decision process.
Because of the severity of the decision, Grace acted uncharacteristically reserved and James acted uncharacteristically bold. After the decision, Grace felt empathy towards James and offered to call the whole thing off. James ignored his fear because he wanted to learn her dangerous secret.
Now, I have to take a sidetrack. In the Facebook Group Writers Helping Writers, I posed the question: “What is the difference between an imaginary friend and a character that an author is writing about?” I got many responses to my post and the overall opinion, was “Not much.”
It started to make me wonder. Are the character Grace and James real to me? In a way, they are. In the above paragraph, I wrote about their “feelings.” Obviously, they are not physically real and they have no feelings. However, they do exist in my mind. When I am not writing, I mentally interact with the characters at a deep level. I think about what they did and what they should have done. I think about their dialog and the way they look. I also think of future plots and unrelated events. I even let my mind drift, “If Grace was at Home Depot with me, what color paint would she use for the den?” Yes, that is a bit creepy.
Do I dream/daydream about my characters? I must admit that I do. When I first watched Star Wars, I had a nightmare about Darth Vader. Is that the same thing? To me, that is a different category because I did not create Darth Vader. He randomly entered my life and I have no control over him. In a way, Darth Vader is just like a mean kid I met for two hours.
The characters I create are built from the ground up and they only exist in my mind and my writings. There is a lot of personal effort to perfect their traits and limitations. Does this mean that I am attached to them? I suppose it does. When I am self-editing and I get to a part where the main character fails, I feel bad. It is as if a friend is failing.
How deep is my attachment? I know the characters aren’t real and I could never meet them in person. It is clear that my writing is at best personal entertaining and at worst an escape. Yet, I fully admit that I have an emotional connection to my characters. I guess that’s part of being an author. If a person commented online, “The character of Grace is weak.” I would feel sad in the same way as when I read negative comments like, “The band Rush does not play good music.” It is an attack on something that I cherish.
How do these characters I created effect my life? Being an author has changed me in several ways. I suppose if you take a high-level view of my emotional attachment to characters, it would result in more friends. I would like to think that I have a good mental outlook and realize that my characters aren’t real. I suppose that as long as I keep this perspective, my life will be just fine.
You’re the best -Bill
January 23, 2019
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