Characters from the inside of your head

A while ago I was trying to dream up a story. In the story, my young hero’s sister has an arranged marriage and moves to the United States from India. I could dream up the humdrum of the colourful wedding, of the bridal finery, of the perspective of the female protagonist’s reaction to the whole cacophonous affair. But as my mind travelled to the inside of this sister’s head, I drew a blank.

What was going through our sister’s head moving to a new country with a strange man? Did she feel powerless not being able to be the engine of her own destiny? Did she feel empowered by the social status that a good groom and a good marriage bestowed on her? Did she feel lost? Did she feel regret at not having pursued her studies or training further on her own? What would she do now?

Sure there are lots of stories out there involving women from the East having arranged marriages moving to either the “freedom” of the West or to complete alienation and isolation in a foreign land. They are all creatures of destiny driven by systems of male dominance or convention going through the kind of arranged marriages that were probably a reality in my grandparents’ generation. Maybe not even then was life so lacking in nuance and three dimensionality as some of those stories would suggest.


So what could be the story of my contemporary generation?

My whole intention here was to imagine a character that would not be a stereotype, that would be a round character, not flattened out by what society would have us believe, simplistically speaking, be what is.

But here I drew a blank as I realized I had never known any such person myself. All the Indian women I knew had come to the US for higher studies, had led a graduate student life in their initial days, had not even remotely tied their destinies to an unknown person in a foreign country. Hence, I had nothing to draw on to build this character. Yet I knew there was lots here. Lots that could turn into a story. But the gap in familiarity was huge.

So I let this character go for the time being and tried another track.

Two men.

One is a man from a middle-class family in India who studies to become an engineer. Driven by his ambitious mother whose personal ambitions were thwarted once she got married at age nineteen, he is a mediocre student who studies fourteen hours a day to get into an engineering college and finally makes it to the USA for higher studies. (And perhaps gets married to our hero’s sister  as a good prize for his efforts without having to take away much from his fourteen hours of studies for dating purposes. Maybe his mother finds the match through the internet?)

I realized that this man is almost completely a stereotype. Does he exist? He does exist as the social pressure driven “nerd” character derived from Indian and American TV shows, newspaper accounts of the rare suicides of young men disappointed during engineering entrance exams, and general ideas floating around my world.  I did not know very many people personally who were like this. Hence this was probably an exact reproduction of a stereotype that I could describe only as an outsider.

The other man is someone who has grown up in a very liberal atmosphere, has not been able to fit this type of the conservative, useful, socially productive man, spends his time hanging out at the alternate movie theatres of the city, writes mediocre poetry, looks at all social constraints with disdain but is acutely aware of the ideals of masculinity in his contemporary world that has taken a turn for the former man who he comes face to face within my story.

Now this man I know. I have known dozens of such men. If I put such a man in my story, he would take over the story and eat up all my other characters. The stereotypes would have a hard time surviving faced with flesh-and-blood characters I’ve known.

Now what is a writer to do? The inside of the head is not a good enough space to find real people in. And you find no one there who you have not already met in the real world.

  • Does this mean that a writer should go out there and meet as many kinds of people as possible?
  • Is living in the inside of your head bad for dreaming up characters?
  • Do imagined people come from the inside of the head who just need some layers to be added to fit the world of the story?
  • Or rather, do characters come from the outside world we inhabit? Do we simply process them through our story-telling mind as a window pane frames a view?
  • Is real memory of people and places an absolute necessity as a vital fodder for the imagination?
  • Is social isolation and long hours of isolated work bad nourishment for the storyteller’s mind?
  • Or does an isolated writer produce fewer but intense characters and a “social” writer produce a world teeming with people?
  • Or might it be that isolated writers simply write stories that are different from the “social” writers?

I know that there is no one simple answer to these questions. I guess I’m just trying to understand the effect of isolation or its reverse, a social presence, on writing.

108 thoughts on “Characters from the inside of your head”

  1. I’m able to write short stories based solely on my imagination, sometimes purposely isolating myself to focus on my mind, and have them well-rounded and believable. I’ve also started many long stories over the years only to chunk the piece because it no longer felt connectable. I don’t know why I am able to write a short story vs a long story. You brought up many good points I will have to think about. Thank you for posting this.


  2. I find if I’ve introduced a character for plot structure reasons, they are in danger of being empty-headed types. I just keep writing and getting to know them. Some of them become friends and individuals and sometimes become so strong they realign the plot structure, others remain empty and I have to let them go. I do work from inside my head and have to work very hard to heat up the personalities. However, if I start to find a character resembling someone I know, I rename and redirect them.

    Thank you for making me think this through.


  3. Fascinating questions posed here – I can see why it is such a popular post, so many comments, so many people driven to respond! The only thing that I can say is that to mix a little of truth and fantasy goes a long way. If you have not encountered a particular character type in real life then I would always try researching their culture and imagining how they would react/what they would do, based on emotional/common sense responses. You can use unpredictability in stressful situations and/or connect with universal themes then gauge the feedback that you get from friends/colleagues, in terms of how real they perceive your character to be. Real life in my opinion can only take you so far, you can draw upon it for inspiration but I would think that you only need enough of it to connect the reader on some level and the rest you can colour in yourself, that way it keeps things interesting and original. Who is to say that your interpretation of the character is not the correct one, so long as they are behaving in a true manner that is befitting of the nature of the story. Hope this helps!


    you can find it on IMDB. It’s the story of an arranged marriage in India- a rare and transcending film.


  5. I started out writing characters exactly like my brothers, but I quickly became unable to make the characters do anything my brothers wouldn’t do. So, I guess I’d say, I start with someone I know and take off from there.


  6. It’s difficult, I think the idea of “framing” a person for a character is a good one; the bits of real people that don’t fit are trimmed, because the character must serve a purpose for the narrative. There will always be a real person, or at least an impression of someone, in there somewhere. Unfortunately, you can also be inspired by other people’s characters, like your Indian engineering student, which risks cliché.
    It’s always amazing how much you take from yourself, of course, no matter from whose perspective you’re writing. I’ve got this semi-clichéd private investigator whose sadism I was horrified to realise was my own. He’ll take pleasure in using his cleverness to wound other people when he’s frustrated or angry, and it was only when I later caught myself practically quoting his speech that I realised we were more similar than I thought. Scary stuff.


  7. I can relate a lot with this blog entry. I feel I’m going through some what of the same thing explained above, especially with my background story of my novel. I try to draw from with in and from what I can gather from outside source’s. I’m becoming more and more frustrated cause I can’t seem to find anyone to speak to about their own personal experiences. And in my case this aspect of my novel can’t be fibbed. So I’m at a point where I’m going to jump ship so to speak. But this post really has me asking a lot of indepth questions now. It sheds light in a lot of my grey areas.
    Thank you for sharing this. : )


  8. Interesting post. I do think isolated writers produce different bent on ‘things’ than socially connected ones… but there’s a place for many facets, bents, etc.


  9. How often it is said that a writer should write what he/she knows. Of course knowing can come from internal AND external experiences. Or just from that knowing one is really drawn to something, enough, perhaps to create a story, a poem, or however it manifests. I really don’t think there is one answer.

    I wanted to thank you for all your visits to my blog and likes on my posts. I do not always have the time to acknowledge them, but wanted you to know how much I appreciate your support. Please, keep exploring and questioning and, most of all, keep writing! DMD


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