Characterization is fascinating. Authors are often asked where they get their ideas for characters – are they based on someone they know, a family member, neighbor, someone spotted randomly on the street? Individual writers will have unique responses to this question. Perhaps the most quoted answer comes from Gustave Flaubert, who famously said of his character Emma Bovary, “C’est moi!”
Of course characters are bits of ourselves, bits of people we know, bits of briefly met strangers. And then there are those characters who simply appear on the page and start talking. This mystifying experience does happen during the writing process, but in order to really get to know a character, a writer needs to dig deep into the character’s background and life experiences. How to do this?
A friend recently gave me a copy of The New Yorker magazine and directed me to a Profile on Hillary Mantel of Wolf Hall fame, entitled: The Dead Are Real: Hilary Mantel’s Imagination.
In it, I learned much about Mantel’s writing process, which I assumed would be interesting to me but wouldn’t pertain to the kind of writing that I do – she writes historical fiction after all. And yet, Mantel describes a technique she learned from another writer friend to “feel her way inside the characters, to know what it’s like to be them.” Here’s the trick:
Sit quietly and withdraw your attention from the room you’re in until you’re focused inside your mind. Imagine a chair and invite your character to come and sit in it; once he is comfortable, you may ask him questions.
Simple, right? Mantel says she first used this technique when writing “The Giant, O’Brien.” When she invited the giant to come sit in the chair, he entered the room but before he sat down he tested the chair first to see if it would take his weight. And that was enough for her. From then on, she says, she could imagine herself in the giant’s body.
So, go ahead, try this technique, I’m planning to try it with a sketchy character in a new mystery novel I’m working on. And I’d love to hear how it works for you.