To write a character become the character

WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW – YOU CAN LEARN

I have taught myself to write from ‘right behind the eyeballs’ of the characters I’m giving voice to.

It is a process similar to Method acting – or to becoming possessed.

I even try to keep the observation of the character to the minimum intrusion I can do.


From October 2012:

Writing characters: To be someone else

The only way I can write a character is to find the part of myself that IS that character.

I contain multitudes.

Everything I have ever heard or read is part of me, and every part of it has to fit in to what I know of the world, my version of reality.

I don’t know what features and programs I came pre-loaded with, but the only access I have to it is how I react to things when they happen to me. Nothing inside me is untouched by the world I was born into, and the world I have added to that every day of my life.

Everything is a product of my experience plus how ‘I’ reacted to that experience.

One of the pre-loads is obviously that marvelous capacity for self-examination, the human consciousness, the ability to be self-aware. I don’t always know why I did something, but, with patience, I can often figure it out. Eventually.

What does this have to do with characters?

Before I can write how a character thinks and acts, I have to put myself into an alternate universe where I imagine or create how the character got to the place where he can be what he is, or she can do what she does. The backstory has to explain the present that I write in.

It gets scary: by the time I have it, at whatever depth, the character IS me – if I had lived through what she has and started with who she was born as.

I have to do some of that even for minor characters, where it helps to cast a few steps back from the present, so that the present at least seems grounded in some kind of logical conclusions.

But for the major characters, it has to go deep – deep and very far back. As far back as the baby he was, who his older sisters were, and where he fit his family’s needs.

I add his alternate universe, and mark him with the events that will take him to where I need him to be.

Then the present makes sense, a convoluted but self-consistent sense, and his actions and words are inevitable.


It takes extra time to switch from character to character, to give a reader the right perspective for each scene, so it contributes to the story whole.

It would be so much simpler not to.

But I would neither be doing my job – nor having so much fun.

Do you like to become the characters you read?

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6 thoughts on “To write a character become the character

  1. marianallen

    I had trouble finishing SIDESHOW IN THE CENTER RING, because I hated being a couple of the characters. I absolutely HATED stepping into their personalities. They were so damaged and toxic, it was a trial to inhabit them. But you’re right–you gotta do it.

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  2. Jack "Blimprider" Tyler

    I love your dedication to character. It falls right into line with my dominating principle of “Characters are fiction.” I don’t think I “become” my characters so much as to create/learn them from backstory to the current moment, then run along behind them with a notebook, trying to keep up.

    I also like this: “Everything I have ever heard or read is part of me, and every part of it has to fit in to what I know of the world, my version of reality.” I’ll have to post about my muse, who HE is, and how he works some day. Took me years to work out what goes on downstairs in the subconscious, but it was worth understanding the process. But I see that you know that already…

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    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Becoming a character is the greatest gift I’ve received as a writer. Maybe it’s a side effect of being so physically limited: the only way out for a while is to be someone else intensely.

      It starts by knowing critical pieces, but goes past that to a gestalt – and that gestalt guides my choices when I write dialogue, or evaluate the actions the character needs to take.

      It is also strongly tied to the plot – which is why my plot has to be there from the beginning, all the way to the end.

      I never got a chance to do this in my acting career, but that’s what writers have imaginations for.

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