Musings: Getting Inside The Characters

Today, I’m going to discuss getting inside a character’s head.  It’s one of the things I do well (probably because I spend so much time taking peeks inside real people’s heads).  It’s something a fiction author must do well.  Depending on the kind of fiction you’re writing, it can be essential to the entire story.

I’ve heard a lot about the distinction between a story being character-driven and plot-driven.  The truth is, I’ve seen very few places where one hasn’t been immediately essential to the other.

Think about it.  If Character A (we’ll call him John) is stuck dangling five stories above the ground, that’s part of the plot.  But what makes this position INTERESTING is that John is afraid of heights.  So, how does he get out?  Does he freeze up?  Will he talk himself into overcoming his fear at least long enough to get back inside the building?  And his struggle to get back inside will either be fraught with his emotional rollercoaster, or complete and total numbness, with the emotions sinking in only once he’s climbed in off the window.

Or take situation #2:  John’s put himself out on that ledge, intending to jump.  Problem is, he didn’t know until this moment just how intense his fear of heights is.  He wants to die, but he’s afraid to let go of the window frame.  Now there’s another paradox to deal with.

In both cases, the immediate plot is important to moving the story forward (John has to either survive, or become a splat on the pavement, and depending on the importance of the character, the writer determines which plot device moves the story along more efficiently.  Neither outcome is outside of the realm of possibility.), however, without the character’s reaction, the reader is sitting on the sidelines shrugging and muttering “Who cares?”

But once the reader’s allowed access to John’s thoughts and feelings, suddenly it MATTERS what happens to him.  And we’re right there, holding our breath and praying for him, wishing we could reach out and help him back into the room.  And our sense of relief when he makes it back inside (whether defying the odds of a terrible accident, or making the choice to continue living) keeps us reading, to find out what happens to him next.  We CARE about John.  Thus, his character becomes essential to the story moving along, as well.

But how does the author get inside John’s head?  *grins* At risk of sounding corny – practice!  I always advise writers who are just starting out that, before they sit down and plot their first book, they do some characterization exercises.  These are really simple to do:

1. Pick a character.  Determine name, sex, age, and jot down a few basic notes about background.  This doesn’t have to be anything fancy or indepth, though some of my early characterization exercises have become wonderful characters, in time.

2. Pick a situation.  It doesn’t have to be life-threatening, although understanding how a person reacts under extreme stress can make understanding them in day-to-day situations much easier.

3. Have a character and situation written down?  Great.  Now, ask yourself one simple question:  Based on what you know about this person, at this moment, how would they react?

Here’s an example:

1. John.  Male, 30, fear of heights and fire, loves his family intensely, was a pilot until he suffered a bad crash in a small plane and lost his brother.

2.  Situation:  John’s trapped on the roof of a burning building with his six-year-old niece, whom he’s only just found.

3.  How does he react?:

The sweat stood out on his skin, and he knew it had nothing to do with the flames licking beneath him, as Amy’s small arms trembled around his neck.  This sweat was cold, and his knees shook with the effort to remain upright as he looked down at the ground, some twenty feet below him.  His stomach lurched.  No way could he make that jump.

“I’m scared.”  Amy’s small voice wavered against his ear, and John’s heart seized.  She was six, and the only piece of Pete left in this world.  He couldn’t fail her.

Again, the heat of burning jet fuel singed him, and he heard Pete’s scream, and then that terrible silence.  Flames crackled around his booted feet, and he smelled the oily burn of rubber.

“Shit.” He swore, and didn’t need to look down to know the roof was now on fire.  He was out of choices, here.  If he didn’t jump, he was condemning Pete’s daughter to die the same way her father did – burned to death because of John’s fear.  He looked toward the ground, where firefighters set up a huge net.  He was out of time.  John heaved a deep breath, squeezed his eyes closed, and flung them both out into the fire-lit night.

See how the step inside works?  You know something about him, and you see the world, and the danger, through his eyes.  His love for his family, and his guilt over his brother’s death, are both stronger than his fear of heights and fire combined.  When pressed to act, he does, but you can feel his fear through it all.  And that human factor is what makes the plot so much more gripping.


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