Self-analysis for characters

I don’t want to give the impression that it’s not OK to shift and grow and change as a writer, both in habit and in personality.  In fact, that is vital to writing, because otherwise you would produce the same story over and over.

On change

Usually, you don’t need to force a change.  You just grow up, you move around, you learn new things, you experience new opportunities, and you continue to analyze yourself and write what is true to you as you go.  Some of your projects might be small enough that they encapsulate your voice at a moment in time.  Others will fluctuate with you.

For instance, this productivity series is very much the encapsulation of two years of concerted work on interrelated projects, and captures my voice post-dissertation while I’m trying out new types of authority.

My novel, on the other hand, has spanned about twenty years of my development as a person.  It looked like typical, epic, romantic fantasy when I first wrote it in high school, complete with castles and dragons.  I set it aside for a long time, and pulled it back out after living in Chicago for five years, during which time I depended on my friends for support through grief and transformation.  I determined, on the revisit, that my characters would do better in urban fantasy settings, with primary drives revolving around survival and chosen kinship.  I tossed the book into the Gilded Age, too, because I had taken a lot of history classes dealing with that time period, and because the Mag Mile both inspired and infuriated me.

It was true to me at both points in my life, but I would argue it’s more mature now, more interconnected, and more complex.

Opposites and aspirations

One time, I wrote a scene involving a serial killer who eats souls, and I was so freaked out that such a person came out of me that I turned on all the lights in my apartment, watched Mean Girls, and made a donation to a charity.

Another time, I applied for graduate school funding after writing a scene with one of my most confident, clarified, and no-nonsense characters who bridged worlds in the same way my project bridged disciplines.

Write what scares you—who you don’t want to become.  And, just as much, write what you admire in others, and who you do want to become.  Solidify who you are in juxtaposition to both, so you don’t sacrifice your core in the creation of characters.  Write yourself from time to time, as you are now, and as you were.  But also be willing to update your belief systems.

Above all, recognize that there are many, many valid ways of being in this world, and as a writer, it behooves you to hold space for, and try to represent well, the various folks who will be affected by your work.  When you find a character presents you with special challenges, reach out to people who might know that character’s truth better than you do.  That’s not cheating—that’s responsible, connected writing cultivated via self-understanding.

You are not boring

 Everyone lives a life that is uniquely interesting, solely because it is not a life than anyone else can live.

Therefore, you can use your complexities and challenges to throw your characters some curveballs.  These might be universal—grief—or individual—genderqueer identity.  They might be complexities that involve you for a day—what to wear to a wedding—or unfold over a decade—what career defines you.  They might be complexities you see upon review—when you really should have left him—or challenges you’re living with in the moment—how to balance writing and raising children.  It’s all worth learning from and writing about.

You can also use your constants to help you imagine your more unchanging characters.  That doesn’t mean these are the characters who are traditionalists, although that could be a part of it.  Maybe you’ve always been consistently eccentric—that works, too.

You’re a Watson—you contain worlds.

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Historian, novelist, musician, and imagination professional.

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