I’ve been thinking about characters a lot recently. Usually, that type of free association wondering opens up a gate to my favourite way of developing projects and ideas: asking questions. How, as writers, we create characters, build them, nurture them, find stories for them or simply let them go when there isn’t enough love to go around for all of them?
From my writing experience, I can honestly say that I don’t put myself in all of my characters’ shoes. If I have several characters in the story (ensemble story or script), I usually choose one character I can empathise with the most. I know myself well enough to know my emotional capacity limits and getting truly emotionally attached to one character is more than enough.
I don’t think it’s necessary to spread your emotional self too thinly across all the characters you create. At the end of the day, you might not even like some of them (in my rulebook, you should care for your characters, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to like them as people).
I’m never in love with all of my characters, but I can honestly say that if I develop their backstories well enough, it helps me, as a writer, to understand their choices, which helps to build a stronger connection between us.
The only time I have walked in my character’s shoes was when Magda, the writer and the character I created, shared similar life experiences and choices. However, I try to avoid too many similarities between my life experience and my characters.
If the character you created is a batshit crazy psychopath, walking in their shoes would likely be toxic for your mental health. As creatives and humans, we need to protect our emotions. Going through psychological experiments to truly feel or experience the character’s rage or violence might not be the most productive way to go about the development process.
My story development process is often triggered by something else than a personal experience. It can be an image, a thought, a sentence, a conversation I overheard in a coffee shop or restaurant, or a real-life person I briefly met. Anything that everyday life offers can create enough curiosity and emotional connection to set me off on the character development journey. From the initial idea, though, anything and everything can happen. During the development, the character can change so much that finding a resemblance to the idea that brought that character to life or finding a connection to my own experience might be tricky.
Writing about characters and stories that don’t come from our personal experiences is what we do. Our stories will come to life with a little bit of innovation and plenty of imagination combined with some solid research.
We connect to our writing powers through various sources and walking in our character’s shoes is just one of many ways to connect with our characters. At least, that has been my writing experience.
What about your writing process? Do you need to put yourself in your character’s shoes to develop your character?
- If you have fascinating characters but don’t have a story for them, put them aside and wait for the right story to come your way. I waited over ten years for the right story for Maggie and Patrick to arrive.
- I often write into my scripts a character that I genuinely hate. A character that is built on cliches and is very unlikable. I call them wooden characters. During the re-writes, I will either get rid of that character altogether or add more substance to them, so they’re more dimensional and relatable than a stick figure they were created to be. Creating a “wooden icky character” allows me to get all the character cliches out of my system.
- Recently I came to realise that my beginnings aren’t as powerful as I would like. However, permitting myself to write wobbly and clumsy sentences gives me flexibility. It allows my writing to become more impactful right from the start without the weak, long-winded opening. In short, the weakest link must go, which means deleting the beginning of my articles or blogs, if they don’t sit well with the rest of the text.
“Seven Psychopaths” is a brilliant film about a struggling screenwriter whose best friend engages him in real-life experiences to unlock his creativity. This film is a perfect example of walking in your character’s shoes. Would I like to be a part of Marty’s experience in real life? Definitely not! Does that make me a less imaginative, creative writer? I don’t think so!