Sunday, April 17, 2011

Writing Naked

by Sophie Perinot

I am a very private person. But as an author I recognize that the writing process is no place to be coy. When I sit down to my keyboard I do so naked. NO, not in the buff (though if that works for you I say go for it!). I am talking about sitting down ready to bare myself emotionally.

Why do I get naked? It’s a matter of “C”haracter. I want my characters to be believable, because let’s face it nothing makes someone drop a book faster than 1-dimensional, card-board cut-out characters. I want readers to IDENTIFY with my characters (even the ones they don’t like very much). To achieve these goals, my characters need to behave as real people do in similar circumstances.

So how do I create flesh-and-blood out of thin air and computer pixels? How do I get “into” my character’s skin? By calling upon the ghosts of undergrad-acting-classes past (see Mom and Dad I told you taking acting wasn’t a complete waste of my time and your tuition dollars) and using the same techniques that a Method Actor would.

“Affective Memory can be VERY effective. Affective Memory can be understood as “emotional memory”(at least in acting it can. In psychology it is my understanding that people will go three rounds with you about what the term means and whether an “affective memory” even exists but I didn’t study psychology so let’s leave that shall we?). I am suggesting that as an author you delve into some of your most personal emotional experiences and use them to breathe life into your characters. The best writing means revealing, by proxy, feelings and experiences you would never share with someone at a cocktail party. Giving voice to stuff (emotional reactions and behaviors) you wouldn’t tell your own mother. Better still, revealing things you have trouble admitting to yourself.

Of course the easiest and most convenient situation for using emotional memories occurs when one of your characters is plotted to experience an event that you’ve personally lived through. Walked away from an evil, philandering husband-from-hell? Now is the time to mine all that pain for profit. But lots of times the conflicts in our characters’ lives are entirely removed from our experience (just as well – particularly if you write in a genre involving violent deaths). So how do you create convincing emotional action and reaction for such events? Creative substitution (you’re a creative type, remember). Ask yourself when in my life have I felt/behaved in the way that I need my character to feel/behave now? Recall that occasion in as much detail as possible until you not only remember the externalities of the event but how you felt as well. Then take the next logical step – how did your feelings make you behave?

If you honestly cannot come up with an incident that provides useful insights for an emotional situation faced by your character feel absolutely free to strip your relatives, friends, colleagues and neighbors bare (how often is someone going to suggest that, eh?). Do you have a friend who felt ignored by her husband of many years (something that is happening to your protagonist in the middle part of your book)? How did it change her? What was she like to be around? Did she get angry, sad, both? Did she internalize her feelings or externalize them? How did they manifest themselves and who got the emotional pie in the face?

A few caveats (or “your naked is not everybody’s naked”)

First, every character in your book is NOT you. Or at least every character SHOULDN’T be you (that’s what bad actors do – play themselves in every role. Can you imagine 30 novels all featuring permutations of me as the main character -- yuck). You want variety (it’s the spice of life and also of fiction). So, no matter whose experiences you draw upon to generate an emotional response for your characters filter that response through the character’s setting (time period, socio-economic class, etc) and personal psychological make-up. In other words, it isn’t enough to “know thy self” you need to know your each of your characters inside and out as well.

Second, there is no point in being embarrassed or dodging the really painful, frustrating, mortifying internal material that might provide a fantastic basis for your characters’ internal lives. Even though you know (see point one) that your characters are NOT you, some percentage of your readers are going to think they are. Yep, remember that stale marriage bit from your manuscript? When readers see your husband some number of them are going to give him the fish-eye. If you are going to get branded with the good, the bad and the ugly from your characters’ psyches you might as well be emotionally honest in the writing process—you might as well bare your soul in the service of your art.

16 comments:

Darke Conteur said...

Nice Post! Great advice. Sometimes it can be hard, visiting places you don't want to, but I think it would be worth it if it brings a real sense of who your character is, to the story.

Lol, did that make any sense?

Miranda Neville said...

Fabulous post, Sophie. Writing historicals, it's easy to forget that one has relevant experience to bring to the story.

On the other had, one may be protected from this:

"Even though you know ... that your characters are NOT you, some percentage of your readers are going to think they are."

Sophie Perinot said...

Miranda -- Especially when one writes about notorious rakes as you do :) But yes, I fear many will come away from my debut thinking my husband is either a dreadful career obsessed man or a complete idiot.

Rachel said...

Great post, thank you! Now I'm off to see if I can make all my characters as three dimensional as my hero and my bad guy...

Sophie Perinot said...

Great point Rachel! So many writers forget the secondary characters. Obviously they can't be allowed to take over a MS but sometimes a "characteristic movement" or something similar is enough to set them apart. And no matter how small their part a character must seem real not paper.

RSMellette said...

I got to read coverage of a script I wrote a while back. Granted, the script wasn't great, but the coverage said, "minor characters are too well-developed." Idiot. Minor characters are the spice of any story. I should know, I played enough of them at the Virginia Shakespeare Festival.

Richard said...

Very good post. The more we know about our characters, the more thoroughly we can show them.

RKLewis said...

Awesome post, S. Nice work!!

Josh Hoyt said...

Great information!

Sophie Perinot said...

Thanks Richard, RK and Josh :)

susankeogh said...

Welcome to the world of blogging! Good job.

cherie said...

Can't believe that was your first blog post, litgal. Awesome job! And the title was a definite eye-catcher. lol. =)

Carmen Esposito said...

I loved this post! I'm going to work on developing my characters better and undressing myself a little more when I write. I still have difficulty writing naked. :)

Sophie Perinot said...

Carmen -- I am SO glad. I was quite nervous about entering the blog-o-sphere but I must say everyone has made me feel very welcome.

Leslie Rose said...

I love the way writing lets me use both my acting and design backgrounds. All things are possible when you let yourself be creatively naked. Loved the post.

Sophie Perinot said...

Leslie -- True that! I am constantly amazed by the breadth of creativity among writers. So many actors, visual artists of all sorts, etc. And I think all those types of training and experiences enrich their abilities as storytellers. The sort of artistic cross-training RSMellette talked about in his post this past Wednesday.