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.