“Whatever happened to poor Lucy? Why was her childhood so tragic? The deck wasn’t stacked in her favor. She didn’t have much of a chance, did she?” Those words, spoken by my husband Les one evening last spring, caused me to whirl around. For Lucy was a doomed character in my story Replacement Child, from my volume of short stories, Speak From Your Heart and Be Heard: Stories of Courage and Healing. Here’s the link:https://www.amazon.com/Speak-Your-Heart-Be-Hea…/…/1099162645 It was at that moment I realized Lucy was like part of our family: she had become that real.
When I write a story, watching characters take on a life of their own is an amazing experience. Kind of like giving birth, feels like the same magnitude at times.
When Michele from the Historical Novel Society asked me to speak to our group about how I develop characters from a psychological perspective, I was instantly intrigued.The question led me to a good deal of soul searching and to writing this blog and this series. Today, as I reflect upon ways I do create characters– from the psyche up– want to invite all of you toreflect on your experiences with character in your writing.
I’ve realized since Michele posed the question that I’d at least laid the foundation for describing how I develop characters in my book. I’d devoted the last part to a section called “Behind the Scenes.” In it, I talk about how my experiences with people in my psychology practice inspired the development of each of the eight short stories and the characters in them. Each vignette is like a brief case study.
And yes, I suppose I do develop my characters from a psychological perspective or, as I like to think, “from the psyche up.” But not because I’m a psychologist. In conversation with friends, they often say to me, “You’re a psychologist, so of course you analyze.” My reply is always the same, “Actually, that’s not quite right. I analyze, so I’m a psychologist.” In other words, “It’s in my blood. Or my DNA, if you will. It always has been.”
That’s how I see writing and storytelling. It’s in my blood. I tell stories. I analyze and create characters because it’s in my blood.
In reflecting upon how I create characters, I’ve concluded much of it is from an intuitive, unconscious part of me. I have a sensation that some sort of images are etched in my brain–words and images, shaped by life experiences and events.
These days, I’m confronting my avoidance of formulaic approaches. I’ve had a discussion in my head with Jessica Brody as I considered her “fifteen beat sheet” (Save the Cat Writes A Novel). I’ve spoken with K.M. Welland, as I tackled “Outlining Your Book,” and with C S Lakin as I pondered her structuring tactics on layering a book. Ms. Lakin likens layering a novel to framing a house. I love the metaphor but not the lockstep method that often comes with it.
Such books offer important insights into structure and the planning and revising aspects of writing. Sure, if I’m writing a novel, perhaps my magnum opus, I probably need some kind of organized plan. But if I try to adopt a complex toolbox formula too soon, before I even start writing, my brain rebels.
When I begin to write, I must allow the images to enter quietly, almost sneakily, and guide my hand. It’s almost as if my brain is saying, “use me, be open to me and inspired by all the imagery I’ve recorded and stored for you for a lifetime.”
As you might guess, the images are not clearly laid out in an orderly way. They form a kind of vision or map and are often accompanied by a little voice that talks me through the process. And along with the map come the much-coveted emotional insights that make the characters authentic and relatable. Insights that make the reader realize something about him or herself they hadn’t known before.
In my next blog, I’ll be exploring the topic of “Creating Character from the Psyche Up,” (I’m determined to publish every two weeks.) I’ll be talking about my view of the nuts and bolts of the emotional craft of fiction.
And I’ll be introducing the two romantic characters, Ned and Misty, and Ned’s childhood sweetheart, Sabrina, from my story, The Promise. I’ll be talking about the tiny snapshot of this man with soulful and searching eyes who found his way onto the blank page as Ned. And dancer Misty, who, despite fears of being haunted forever by the brutal beating of her little brother, finds solace in important ways.
I would love to hear about your experiences and your response to my ideas about creating character from the psyche up.