What do you do when the character you’re writing has a completely different way of thinking and experiencing the world to you?
I suppose that’s where the ‘write what you know’ adage comes in, but I don’t always want to do that. Part of the fun of writing is being like a method actor on the page, inhabiting the mind of someone different to you.
But this magic only occurs when, sitting at the keyboard in the midst of a chapter, I put the extra effort in to place myself in the character’s skin. Sometimes it doesn’t happen. Maybe I’ve got too caught up in trying to dramatise a critical piece of exposition through dialogue. Or maybe I just want to watch some NBA highlights. This is writing from the outside-in, and it results in writing that just doesn’t feel right.
Writing from inside a character’s mind becomes easier or more difficult depending on how similar that character is to me. If they’re an acutely empathetic young woman, brought up amidst a religion that happens to be repressive, then it takes more work to write the truth of what the character is experiencing.
In writing that last sentence, part of me said “What? You mean I’m not acutely empathetic?” The idea of rating my own empathy on a website named after myself is just slightly too self referential not to be considered up it’s own arse. That said, I feel like my ramblings have made it clearer for me why it’s useful to be as frank as possible about your own short comings and the extent of your qualities, because if I trick myself into thinking I’m an extremely empathetic person (which I’d love to do) then I’m setting myself up for a really hard time when it comes to writing. Here’s an example…
Willow, one of the main characters of my story, is just such a highly empathetic person – so empathetic that she has to sneak off to be by herself every few hours because being amongst other humans is so intense, since she feels what they’re feelings so acutely. If a bird flew into a window, Willow would wince as if it was she that just banged her head, because her mirror neurons are so primed for action (bit of a mechanical way of putting it, but screw it, we’re being analytical).
People who know me will recognise I’m a bit like this, but Willow is an extreme example. When writing her chapters, I feel like the most important thing is to keep this aspect of her personality in mind – the peculiar things she notices, and the sensitivity with which way she responds.
Now we throw in the fact that she’s a woman in her early twenties brought up world called Munoria, and I’m a thirty two year old male brought up in the North of England. It’s said that female writers have an easier time writing male characters than the other way around. I think that might be true, but there are a few things that give me confidence:
- I was brought up by women, mostly.
- I was brought up in a semi-enchanted village tucked away in the South Pennies. Hebden Bridge and Munoria are kindred spirits.
- I don’t profess to be an expert in women, but I do know a lot about this specific woman
The biggest difference between us is the fact that I’ve been lucky enough to have not been brought up in an austere religious culture. Willow hasn’t been so fortunate. How to enfold that into the writing?
To make the task more difficult, it’s necessary to create this fictional religion in some depth before, otherwise the part of Willow that feels committed to her gods will come across as thin and brittle to the reader.
There’s a lot to keep in mind, but the more I write, the more the bond between Willow and I is strengthened. If I take a few days off, then the magic bridge between us will start to get eroded. Maybe that’s partly why Heinlein, Hobb, Martin, and a whole load of other writers stress the importance of writing every day.