Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Getting Into Character

As an author I have to 'get into' the skins of my characters. How do I do that? Every writer uses his own set of rituals and techniques, so what follows is an overview peculiar to me. Since character is the heart and soul of my stories this is a topic that will be revisited many times, I am sure.

To begin with, there are three sources of inspiration for developing character: research, association and philosophy. Each of these breaks down to its own facets, which we may explore later. For now, I'm going to develop a 'big picture'.

Before we go on, though, it's worth asking: what am I looking for? What do we mean when we say we're 'exploring character'? The sense I have when I set out to write a story is that I am on a historical quest. I consider myself a biographer of sorts, who is investigating the habits and actions of real people; not a daydreamer, fantasizing about purely fictional beings. That mind-set gives a tangible cast to the characters as I investigate.

Research delves into the hard facts of who my character might be. I read books about their eras, visit places they might have been, get a sense of their vocations. For example, the protagonist in Stained Glass, a novel in progress, is an Anglican priest. Step one for me is to establish contacts with practicing Anglicans to flesh out the religious parameters of his life. What was it like to be in seminary? What are the day-to-day duties of a priest? How does a life dedicated to Christ alter the world view of a priest? The book is set in the 1870s, in the Gold Rush Town of Barkerville, BC. The archives at Barkerville will yield a wealth of imagery and journal entries that will further flesh out the life and times of my characters. Research, for me, is like hunting through a crowd, looking for evidence of a character that already exists - things my character might have experienced, internalized and become.

Association brings into the mix all the people I've ever known, who might share some of my character's traits. There is an intimacy to my 'real time' relationships that adds depth to my appreciation of a character. Although I haven't had close contact with any Anglican priests, for example, I did attend Norwood United Church as a child and can remember vividly my interactions with Reverend Kennedy, the minister of the day. Although he was not at all similar to the protagonist in my story, there are some character traits that translate: the tone of voice he used in delivering his sermons; the way he greeted members of the congregation as they entered the church; the swish and billow of his robes; a certain professional aloofness. Other personalities in my life are also great reference points: teachers, psychologists, close friends.

Philosophy (or call it psychology, if you prefer) helps me extrapolate and discover elements of character that I might never have encountered or imagined. My philosophical framework is a home-made 'schematic' I call The Tetrahedron. It categorizes experience into physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual realms, which are all interconnected. Physical experience manifests as pain or pleasure; emotional as love or hate; intellectual as right or wrong; spiritual as infinite or finite. Although this is purely conceptual - The Tetrahedron does not exist - it is a marvelous construct for analyzing human motives and the factors that distort human perspectives.

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