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.

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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.

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

  1. I find I write better when I’m out having a social life and interacting with people. It does two things: 1. Forces me to take a break and think things through, and 2. Reminds me how the average person acts, and what real people are like.

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  2. A simple example , our brain can do wonders . A good read.
    The only confusion ,if I understood it ,is why to be a socialist or not is brought in to picture, No matter how far our brain is able to extrapolate on the scale of imagination but , social or isolated, it portrays something based on reality only. So why not the reigns of brain be freed and writing be considered as it is a “freedom of expression” non compromised by anything.

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  3. I am often disturbed when writers write on writing and describe the self-prescribed hours of isolation and malcontent. I am usually confronted with my own reading of the Beats. These men were trying to figure out what it meant to be a man, to be a writer, to be alive and real. I think reading On The Road made me realize that great things can be done in the company of others as well as in isolation. The famously isolated J.D. Salinger was rewarded for his efforts to break out of his shell by having his dirty laundry strewn all over the literary world for a time by the one person who got close enough to him to do so. So perhaps it is best to let the type of person you are dictate the type of characters you flesh out. There is something to be said for writing what you know. Great show here!

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  4. Congrats on being FPed – thrice! I wanted to comment earlier when I first read your post, but couldnt due to lack of time ( you know Diwali and all!). I’m not a writer, but if I were, I would go for real people. And the first character you mentioned – the hero’s sister, I know many like her (me included!) . But some of their stories are so intense and characters so layered, they would have to be the heroine – not the hero’s sister 🙂 !!

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  5. Well done on being Pressed! Characters, to me at least, are often a conglomerate of personalities I have met. Sometimes, at the end of a story, they seem familiar – and when I think about them, I recognise the parts. This is an entirely subconscious process in my case and it amazes me. The bottom line: bits and pieces of people you have often almost forgotten, are there – lurking in the shadows – to emerge again in your writing. The dark recesses of the mind have a store of fragments, just waiting for you to give them life.

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  6. A writer does not have to force him/herself to meet people to create realistic characters, and realistic characters presents a fallacy of misinterpretation. Basing a character off a real-world template does not constitute a realistic character. To make a character “real”, they must live within the story’s world and act according to themselves. Characters should never be “designed”, because then they are specifically crafted to fulfill a role or plot. When plot creates, shapes, and chooses characters, stereotypes can emerge because the characters are shallow enough to be given such a label.

    For any kind of larger work (or any work, honestly), characters must be allowed to live beyond the confines of “screen-time”, or what the reader will be able to see. What’s an ordinary day like for a character? Favorite foods? Heroes? History? Regrets? Embarrassing moments in life? What would they do in X mundane situation? What would they do in Y extraordinary situation? Throw the character through events and have them meet people, any people, even if it’s just a hypothetical situation and not an actual piece of the character’s history. Let characters live away from the storyboard, come to know them, and then through any plot, no matter what it is, the author will instantly know how the character will proceed.

    A character stereo-type defines surface attributes, and can only apply to a character who only exists on the surface. It is IMPOSSIBLE to create a stereo-typical character, no matter how similar to a stereo-type, when the author has defined him/her all the way down the Marianus Trench.

    Anytime a blank comes up when writing about a character, spend some time getting to know him/her a little better. Before a character can compel a reader, they must first compel the author.

    Characters should shape and control the story. That’s my preferred method, at least.

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  7. i once read somewhere that ideas are not created, but live out there in some sort of “idea-osphere”, you just have to tune in on the right channels to grab the ones that appeal to you and add something of yourself to grow it into something else. just like in politics and in fashion, themes keep on coming and going, nothing is ever completely new. i think the best ideas and characters have been inspired from real things and people. take harry potter for example, the characters are stereotypes and the Hogwarts is just a fantasy extension of London / England. Readers relate to that, and it just helps them dream that little bit further. I think having the story grounded in London just makes it that much easier to transport the reader that little bit further. so i think a good writer should be able to earn the trust of the reader enough with real things to be able to transport them into their own fantasy…

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    1. Yes, you are right. It doesn’t matter what comes first– the idea or the character so long as the story is grounded in some kind of reality. Agree.

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  8. Hey there! Congrats on being FP’d!
    Been meaning to come back to your blog since you visited mine a while back (finals in the way) Good ol’ FP page was just full of familiar names today so I had to swing by/procrastinate.
    I always get stuck on characters when I have to take them unfamiliar places. It can be limiting when you’re in an idea kind of phase. Sometimes I find getting to know the character better makes the situational side of things easier – if you give them more foibles it doesn’t matter if you haven’t been where they have. You’ll have a good idea of what they ‘can’ and ‘can’t’ do.

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  9. Hemingway always urged writers to ‘write real’. The problem is that the people who like to write – and who are good at it – usually are not the types who joyfully go out and soak up new people. I’m not, for instance. Is there an easy way around it? All we can do is approach the problem obliquely and do our best. It’s hard work. But rewarding, when the character we’ve cobbled up out of bits and pieces of the people we know, out of what we know, and out of the experiences we’ve had – and which we can extrapolate into theirs – suddenly ‘clicks’.

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    1. Yes. It also depends on what you draw your creative energy from–people around you or the life of the mind (which feeds on people around you obliquely like you say). I know people vs. mind is an artificial polarization I’m creating here but I was thinking of the essence of this difference really and how it affects anyone who writes.

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  10. Very interesting questions you are proposing here, it has gotten me looking at writing and creating in a new angle. It would be interesting to be look at writers from the past and present, the kinds of characters they create versus their own personalities in terms of social engagement. Thanks for a great post – very thought provoking and definitely a deserved Freshly Pressed! 🙂

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  11. Fantastic blog and comments today! Congrats on yet another FP – it’s well deserved. I have also done the “stalking” thing, following people and watching them interact — though not for an hour and a half! I’ve also had luck with interviewing random people. It’s surprising the questions people will answer if you just say, “I’m a writer working on a piece, and I was wondering if you could answer a few questions?” Usually good to approach 2 people together – they feel less nervous and also you get to observe the interactions between them. Then you can sit down and make up stuff about them – run w/ what you heard.
    I also find going to movies and plays can add new layers to my characters. Somehow three dimensional characters can kick-start imagination. And don’t short-shrift research. Read some memoir/biography of people like “our sister.” Thanks for the food for thought.

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  12. What’s important is that you are very carefully thinking through these issues. You’re not content with making assumptions and just going with your gut instincts. More power to you! and happy writing.

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  13. Does this mean that a writer should go out there and meet as many kinds of people as possible?
    Personally, I don’t believe so. Many of the greatest literary works were written by people who lived in remote settings but their acute and astute observing of human nature whether other or self related gave them plenty to write about. Also, I don’t think creativity flourishes if we feel we “should” do anything. It’s counterproductive for me, personally.

    Is living in the inside of your head bad for dreaming up characters? No, no, no. If it was, many of the most popular best selling works would never have made it to their status. Just part of working it out, for me, anyway.

    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? Sometimes this may happen but that’s okay, too, as long as the story flows, the character fits and keeps it all moving.

    Or rather, do characters come from the outside world we inhabit? Characters are often, for me, at once, snippets of every character I have ever known and yet no one I have ever met. They say every good fiction work was based on reality. Reality, though, is all relative. And please don’t ask mine. They all think me eccentric enough…lol… it’s all good 🙂

    Do we simply process them through our story-telling mind as a window pane frames a view? I think processing through your story telling mind is what gives the character, the story, the work, your own unique voice and signature. Without it, there is nothing different as Christopher Vogler wrote: there are only 10 original plots. I believe him. We just keep reworking them in our own individual style, voice and story telling manner that makes it different from all the others before us. JMO.

    Is real memory of people and places an absolute necessity as a vital fodder for the imagination? For me, these go hand in hand. When my mind is taken to the past, much grows from it or vice versa. Reality and imagination work in tandem, each fueling the other for anything I write creatively.

    Is social isolation and long hours of isolated work bad nourishment for the storyteller’s mind? No. Done both isolation and over socialization. Benefit is for me, that they again, complement one another and I am trying to keep this to speaking of my own experience but fear I am sounding self centered in doing so when I say that I need both. One feeds the other, with long periods of reflection and note taking balancing out the social stimulation that inspired many works, even on here, inspiration abounds in reading pieces like yours 🙂

    Or does an isolated writer produce fewer but intense characters and a “social” writer produce a world teeming with people? Character driven works always work for me. I love people. Love observing them. But then I also adore setting, time, elements of the unknown. I think there are advantages to both. Some of the most powerful works have few characters while others are intensely human rich. Again, I think it depends on the actual work and where it takes you. I start doing something one way and often find myself finishing on a completely different note.

    Or might it be that isolated writers simply write stories that are different from the “social” writers? My short answer to this is I think isolated writers write differently because they have more time to think, to really delve into human character (or lack of) and social writers keep it moving with dialogue and other elements. This is one of those “strengths of the writer” questions that often, I believe, can only be answered fully by what they actually produce.

    Your questions SO got me thinking! Thanks for this great piece and I’m so sorry I blogged on your blog. But I wanted to answer every single question. Will be coming back here again. Following you now 🙂

    Thanks again for the thought provoking piece, for sharing your “inner” workings and getting me thinking. Inspirational! 🙂

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  14. I think if you are writing a character-driven story, especially about someone who may be very different from the regular people you deal with, then some research might be necessary. To make this character live and breath, understanding any cultural nuances will only help make the character more authentic.

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  15. I can’t say enough, how much I have loved reading this blog and also all the wonderful comments from so many brilliant minds. As a writer and role player, making up characters is something I absolutely enjoy doing. Breathing new life, into an ideal, then placing him or her, in a story setting, and building up the persona, usually from my own mind, as opposed to outside influences. Having just shown my online friends this blog and comments, a dear friend of mine and writer, had this to say:

    [6:34:29 AM] Drakon: Thinking of those questions, it is a little bit of everything, socialization, isolation, meditation, concentration. A lot of “-ation”… Art, events, emotions, things as trivial as a gentle, cool breeze or as massive and memorable as a demonstration.

    All of these attributes are what help many writers come up with characters, places, things, whatever else have you. In truth, it is a lie for anyone to say they lack one influence or another because of how the mind works. Understanding your world, their world and those they interact with or MAY potentially interact with are paramount to reaching that thought-to-flesh transition. When you understand all of these things you can see through the eyes of someone who would be within that world and from there, create a niche or fill a niche in that system.

    You have a new fan. ❤

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    1. ” Breathing new life, into an ideal, then placing him or her, in a story setting, and building up the persona, usually from my own mind, as opposed to outside influences. ” I know now how you work. I was wondering what people thought of first–he *idea* of the character or the character itself. Your friend’s comment also rings true for me. Thank you.

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  16. Much good food for thought here. One thing I’ve learned is that I write better characters when I draw from present experience. When I used to write historical fiction the characters were flat – I didn’t know those places (despite having a deep love for studying them) and so I had a hard time making the people “real” in those settings. Congratulations on being “pressed” thrice! You deserve it!

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  17. I’ve been day dreaming my whole life! I think some isolation is key for writing. For me, thoughts surface more freely if I can focus and it’s quiet. I always wait to hear the voice of my character—sometimes it takes years! Then I can start to envision them–usually prototypes and amalgamations of people I’ve met and stories I’ve heard. Also I collect names for future characters; it helps me picture them as well.
    That’s one thing I miss about writing fiction; there aren’t characters in poetry!
    Fascinating post!

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  18. You have seriously gotten me thinking about character development in a more profound way than entire books on the subject have. Thank you so much for that!

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  19. These are really interesting questions! Some people write for themselves, whereas others write to share their work. I wonder if people who are more introverted write because that’s how they want to get their message across instead of more socially/vocally, whereas people who are more extroverted perhaps write because they enjoy expressing themselves? I tend to be quite shy/awkward in social situations, but I’m not when I write as I can fully express my experiences and opinions. I think social media also helps people who are more shy come out of themselves more and share their opinions/writing.

    I like to get lost in my own head when I write but I don’t find writing to be isolating, although maybe that’s because I like to work alone. I think writing is an expression of what you observe and experience, but can also be cathartic, which is why I think it can be beneficial to have your characters living in your head – they partly help you to make sense of the world. I’d argue that writing can help people solve problems and deal with situations they face in real life too.

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    1. I agree with you. I think one can find characters inside the head. I guess what I find intriguing is the question whether these characters would turn out different from the ones created by a more social writer. . .

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  20. Although not a direct correlation, I think Steve Jobs would have been a proponent of experiencing widely. The unique ideals (at the time) of the Apple computer’s character set came from a calligraphy class he visited while in college. He believed that great inspiriation could, and does, come from anywhere.

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  21. I know that my training as an actor has helped my writing a lot when it comes to creating characters. In fact, I wrote several plays before I ventured into fiction. Theatre exercises like the one described by fela2fela are excellent practice. Also, actors are trained to draw on their own emotions and experiences to play roles that are quite unlike their own lives.
    I guess the best answer is that creating strong fictional characters is a matter of combining what’s in your head and heart with what you observe.
    I wrote a character into my jazz novel based on a woman at work who was driving me nuts. I gave the character her name in the original draft. It was a lot of fun to work out my annoyance through this character. I changed the name later, of course. But it worked well to have a real person to refer to as I wrote.

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  22. My suggestion for anyone who wants an endless supply of character types is to work in a major city tourist district restaurant for a year or two. Observe interact and take notes, you’ll never be hard up for personality profiles again. Even sensationalized gossip versions of people can be made flesh through text.

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      1. It’s not about the cutomers, it’s about the coworkers. Interactions with customers are generally prety sanitized. It’s working with turbo-sluts, players, pimps, drug dealers and a slew of other tweaked out personalities that makes you see people in a different light. My book is a snapshot of my restaurant days, it’s only 86 pages, take a look if you’ve got the time.

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  23. Personally I like to read about ‘real’ characters, about their thoughts and how and what they make of their life experiences. Stories taken from real life situations are often the most fascinating ~ just my preference.

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  24. Have you ever seen the movie “Arranged?” Muslim and Orthodox Jewish schoolteachers (and friends) both going through find-an-arranged match and wanting to do it the “right” way but very nervous about it. I thought it tackled the topic very well.

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  25. Interesting post and a lot of interesting comments too! Well..I’m not a writer of stories..or those that I have attempted to write were really short ones..probably imprints left behind from watching movies or reading books. I would say though that “ultimately we are all the same”. The roots or source of us are the same and I think if we were to group our reactions to life we could do so..easily (probably been done too!). So is it important to go out and meet people if a writer wants to come up with characters for their stories? It may be. Only because though we can say that we are all the same, it’s also not totally true because our human-ess disallows us to know exactly how another person feels like…and that’s important no?

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  26. If we just go with characters from our head, I think their voice might not ring true. However, I think the best characters will be born if we fully explore the improbable. Our readers will relate to characters in whom that can see themselves, but we don’t want characters who are predictable. It’s a fine combination of people we know with the person we’d like to meet that will make the most unforgettable, lifelike characters.

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  27. “Is real memory of people and places an absolute necessity as a vital fodder for the imagination?”

    Can’t say that it is, to be honest. You can take bits and pieces of your experiences and use them as needed, but you’ve got to put in a bit more legwork (well, brain-work) if you’re going to make a story with fantasy elements. As a writer, it’s one’s job to deliver sights and events and people that have never been seen before, or at least given enough of a spin to make them like new; sure,you COULD imagine a ghost as a transparent human walking the earth to finish their unfinished business…but isn’t it more fun to dream up a grinning ghost with a flaming head and sunglasses?

    Okay, I admit I’m a little biased, but…come on. A real writer can’t be afraid to embrace the unreal, you know?

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  28. I have known all different kinds of artists from writers, painters to inventors. Most work independently or with a few others. Good idea to keep your balance/ real life social interaction though. I believe no matter how much you know about character research, it must come from you. No matter how much your studies has informed you…it stems from all you see around you…your past…all that have known and know, both visually and relational. Maybe try not to discard notions of stereotype’s and just create someone whom you are well aware of. Is it not a possibility that if you wrote other books: … and not like minded, but similar in conflict kind of characters would follow? (Just a thought)

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  29. I went to a write-in today, and realized one of the reasons I don’t often go is that some rather abrasive people were nearby. I crave humility in those around me, but I can’t fill novels with humble folks, so some outside influences are necessary. I have always had an active imagination, so I suppose that suffices. 🙂

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  30. The gingerbread men are fantastic! Sometimes I wonder if we writers should just become photographers or cartoonists, the illustrations are sometimes the best part! I enjoyed how the picture you chose illustrated your concept… but was fun in its own way. Keep on adding the creative illustrations! – Trent

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  31. I actually think there’s nothing wrong with coming up with your own characters. Our experiences take us all over and show us many walks of life, and that’s enough to fuel the imagination. Trust your instincts! Today, a character may seem like a stereotype. Tomorrow, he or she may take on a life of his/her own and become something you never thought they would be.

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  32. I’m fascinated by the difference between stereotypes and archetypes. If there is a difference. If the difference isn’t in the readers’ heads. And does it matter if the story illustrates what you want it to illustrate?

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    1. Very interesting point. I know that stereotypes are bad, limiting to living human beings, slotting them, making them devoid of agency. Archetypes are inevitable, so to speak, basic patterns living on in our cultural memories. In that sense maybe they can’t be totally removed from stereotypes but they are things to be valued. But I am intrigued. What did you mean?

      To answer your other question, I think stereotyping matters to the people you stereotype. As writers, we can’t divorce ourselves from some responsibility but that’s only how I feel.

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  33. My younger brother is attending Boston Conservatory pursuing a major in Music Theater. Among many other really amazing assignments, he is required, on occasion, to go out onto the streets of Boston and pick a stranger. Then, and I guess this is easier in such a big city, he follows them around for a half hour or so, observing how they behave and interact with the environment. He does this to better understand the essence of other human beings so that he can create of himself a totally “neutral” or average form of a person, and also to come to interesting realizations about people, so that he may in the future draw on those mannerisms when creating a character. This is a helpful activity for “method actors” and I consider myself a counterpart of my younger brother, a self-appointed “method writer”. Once I made the connection between how he makes a study of man and how I use character to develop my own writing, it really opened my mind as to what I was personally creating with my writing. I am a staunch believer in writing what you know, but one of the greatest things about getting to know other people, or observing someone at random is that we are all far more similar than we would admit outright.

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  34. I used to think I needed isolation to become more creative and understand myself better, but really I’ve realized that it’s quite the opposite. It’s important to get to know all kinds of people, and actually you really find yourself through other people. And I truly believe that the more real people you know, the more your stereotypes as a writer will be broken down and destroyed, which is good. Realizing that all social stereotypes are foolish and learning how to ignore them is one of the best things a writer, or anybody, can do.

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  35. THis is what southern writer Flannery O’Connor had to say about things like experience and writing: “The fact is that anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days. If you can’t make something out of a little experience, you probably won’t be able to make it out of a lot.” You don’t need to live an exotic life to have plenty to write about…

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  36. I think characters are born and raised in your head, but all based on a conglomeration of people you’ve known or read about. I too have run into trouble with my current novel. The lead character is fleshed out, but his nemesis remains elusive. I’ve moved on to another section of the story for now, hoping the nemesis reveals more of herself to me later. I trust that with patience I will figure it out. I think you’ve got some interesting characters and a little research to do, but have the makings of a good story.

    I believe long hours of isolation is generally bad for an individual. You do need to go out and meet real three dimensional people too, or all of your characters will be flat. I think you can learn an awful lot from books and now with the internet you can learn so much more so quickly, I’m sure if you looked into some blogs you might find someone in a similar situation as your character. There’s no substitute for real people though.

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      1. But blogs can be deceptive, because writing styles are deceptive. For example, I have a friend who fun and intellectual. In person he is very gracious of your opinions even though he has strong opinions that are sometimes opposite of mine. But when he writes… the ink comes out as lava the words fall onto the page as brimstone. Your ideas are evil, his are hallowed. If you were to read his blog, you would not see him, just an illusion.

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    1. You’re right, there’s no substitute for meeting a substitute teacher in person to substitute your normal methods of character research 🙂

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