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Put Yourself Into Your Characters [exercise] - J's Novel in Progress

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August 17th, 2005


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agoldengod
03:36 pm - Put Yourself Into Your Characters [exercise]
Part One of the Workshop

A. Write ten things about yourself that you think are fantastic – things that you don’t think other people really appreciate fully about you, or that they haven’t noticed, or that they simply don’t know about. Ten. Really.

B. Write ten things about yourself that would embarrass you terribly if anyone else knew about them. These can be things you have done, things you have wanted, things you have thought, fantasies you have entertained, or secrets you have been keeping. Doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is that you tell the truth. If it doesn’t hurt and make you uncomfortable to write each of these, you aren’t digging deep enough.

C. Describe your body as honestly as you can – what you like about it, what you hate about it, and what you hope no one has noticed.

D. Describe five of the most wonderful moments of your life – things you still look back on with pleasure and joy.

E. Describe five of the most painful moments of your life – mistakes you’ve made, people you’ve hurt, things that you will probably regret until you die.

F. Write the ten things you are most passionate about. These can be religious, political, philosophical, personal, romantic – these are your causes. You can be in favor of them, or against them, but they have to matter to you. They don’t have to be big; they just have to be yours.

Part Two of the Workshop

Okay. Enough soul-searching. You’ll have to do this from time to time, but if you’ve done the exercise honestly this time, you now have enough goodies to give a whole novel or three full of characters some resonance and depth.

Obviously, you are not going to transfer any of this stuff directly into your novel. You’re going to change it, transform it, invert it, spread it out around a whole bunch of people who are not like you. Yes, to do good work, you have to put yourself into your writing, but no, you don’t have to put yourself in recognizably.

Let’s say that one of the really tough-to-deal-with moments in your life came when you caught your girlfriend of five years cheating on you with her girlfriend. Ouch. You aren’t going to get over that one any time soon. You’ve spent time wondering what was wrong with you, how many other people knew what was going on, if you were a laughingstock, if she’d ever done this before, with whom . . . and those questions aren’t going to go away.

So give them to one character. Give them to a character who is otherwise unlike you – different gender, or different sexual orientation, or different interests. Make the situation in which he or she finds out about the cheating entirely different. If you’re writing a novel about a female vampire-hunting space captain, and she’s carrying around these feelings of yours, they aren’t going to be your feelings anymore. They’ll be hers. Give her relationship with the cheater some backstory, make it as closely or distantly related to the plot as you wish, but get it in there. She has a life outside of chasing vampires through space, and sometimes her anger at what this person has done to her is going to find itself displace onto innocent people who for one reason or another will remind her of the cheater. This will affect, to greater or lesser degree, her movement through the story. And it will, because it is personal and true – even if disguised – resonate with your readers.

For you to be able to use the events from your own life effectively in fiction, you must, then, do the following things:

1. Search out those events in your life that have meaning to you;

2. Honestly explore how each of those events affected you;

3. Disguise the events and your reactions to them while still maintaining their essential, emotional truth;

4. And give these altered events to your characters, both good and bad, as part of their personal histories.

And a final, essential point. If this isn’t hard for you to do, you aren’t digging deep enough. The things that matter are never easy. Including the things that matter in your fiction, though, will help you get sales, reach your readers, and write something that isn’t just the next Paper Hero Goes on A Quest doorstop novel. Say goodbye to Evil Villains, Oppressed Virginal Heroines, Naïve-But-Stalwart Heroes, and Smart-Ass Sidekicks forever. Because once you put yourself into your characters, they become Deeper People. They become real.
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