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How do you write?

24 June, 2013

There is a scene in the Russell Crowe film “A Beautiful Mind” where a character (I can’t remember who, I haven’t seen it for years) is in a pub and the barmaid asks him what he wants. He stands still for a moment, silent, and eventually he says “Oh, I’m sorry I was thinking in eleven dimensions and it takes me a couple of seconds to adjust.” I’m paraphrasing, I can’t be bothered to look up the exact quote, but you get the idea.

I was reminded of this scene while at work last week. I was at lunch, writing a scene based in London when someone came up and asked me a question It took me a second to come back to the here and now, to extract myself from St James’ Park and from the mind of Julian, the character I was writing at the time. Because that’s how I write, I inhabit the characters, live the scenes. I find myself making the facial expressions they make, feeling the emotions they feel. It’s sort of like method acting I suppose, I assume the role, and in that way I can see what they see, and their dialogue and actions are theirs not mine. And if the chapter involves several characters, like the breakfast scene I was writing today, I switch from one to another, inhabiting their heads one by one as they speak or move or react.

I’ve probably told you before my WIP has four main characters, one of whom becomes the central focus, and there are three more substantial but lesser characters (one of whom dies before the book begins, but is still an important part of the plot) as well sundry extras. The nature of the book is that aswell as the straightforward plot arc, it explores how these characters interact with one another, how these interactions change when they are in the presence of others, and how they sometimes project their own agendas, interpreting events in a false way. So there are – I don’t know, a dozen or so? – different character relations at work on various levels, some subconscious. Oh, and as the book goes on these relationships change and develop as their characters change and develop, aswell as glimpses and backstories showing how they were years before. All of which means that aswell as inhabiting characters, I am inhabiting characters at a point in time, and as they are with a particular other character, sometimes in the presence of a third. But somehow I manage to do this.

I am in the middle of a rewrite at the moment, and I have to keep flicking around to check continuity and that the character development is progressing correctly. I was doing this today and I noticed that as I opened a chapter and began reading, my head shifted into a different space as I stepped into that character and time. And when I changed chapters, I shifted again almost instantly, and I was experiencing events as somebody different at a different tome.

Shifting into the character is what tells me it is right, and if it isn’t then I have a grating, angering sense that it isn’t working. Like fitting a piece of a jigsaw puzzle. If the piece is right, it slides in and snaps homely nicely. But if it’s wrong, it’s wrong and you know straight away.

 

So I wonder if this is how you write? Is becoming the character the only way to write (what I hope is) believable fiction? Or can you sit outside of them and still know them well enough to write them?

 

 

 

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From → Blogging, My Head, Writing

17 Comments
  1. Primalnights permalink

    Awesome! Hope you get your book published. Tell me when and I promise to read it.

  2. Oddly enough I just compared the way I write to method acting 😀
    Great post…glad to see im doing something right 😉

    • Its the only way I know. noone ever taught me to write or to act, i worked out how to do it myself

      • same here, although i did take theater classes in high school that doesn’t count because i always did backstage work, oh yeah, there was that little incident when i told my theater teacher to ‘fuck off’ in front of the class…ooopsy :O

      • Haha! Youre quite the rebel

      • i think it’s the 8 years in catholic school that did it, you know what they say about catholic school girls…. i mean i know they say something and i’m not sure what it is but it probably explains my rebellious streak which absolutely refuses to leave me (kind of like my muse 😉 )

      • i cant say ive ever been to catholic girls school, so that might be why i dont have a rebellious streak

  3. I’ve never thought about how I write before. Hm… I don’t become the characters. I tend to write in feelings in emotions so I’m not sure it’s so much I’m in their heads as I think about how something should feel for them. I could probably stand to think like the characters so that they’re more individual, but my mind doesn’t work that way.

  4. I’m not really sure I’ve settled in to a best method for me just yet. I currently come close to what you describe though not as intense but mostly I dream the characters and their interactions, so I stand aside and watch as if it were a TV episode playing out. Then, as i write down this dream, it inspires new sections and i become closer to the characters. Great post, really made me think 🙂

    • I have known that sensation of watching and writing, that has usually been the way i write. And your comment has made ME think! It seems that the first/second draft i did was an observational draft, and now i am redrafting I am paying more attention to the precise characterisation at any time and ensuring it is accurate. So for that reason i need to inhabit them and understand them more.

      • So as you redraft you become closer with the characters. that would make sense 🙂

      • thats how it seems to be working for me. I guess because having been through their story once i know them much better. and as i said, i need to be that much closer to them to know that the emotions i am writing are accurate.
        But hey, thats just me!

      • It’s always interesting to read how other writers go about writing 🙂

  5. Morbid Insanity permalink

    When I used to write screenplays, I did in both ways: ‘becoming the character’ sometimes and other times just “watching” them act… and ‘sit outside of them’ (this way I could see them and the scenario and other details). It’s a bit complex to explain because I really still don’t understand how it happened. But I think all the ways are correct.

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