Loch Awe in spring - Photo courtesy of Neil Donald Photography






Saturday, 19 April 2014

In my Head...or Out of It

Sometimes my characters need to take a good
long look at themselves.
Photo by Jurii, from Wikimedia
There are, I’m told, two types of writers. There are those who see the action they describe from outside, as if it were a film. And there are those who see it from the inside, who live they characters’ lives with them. 

I’m sure there are technical terms for these approaches though I don’t know what they are. But I do know that I’m the second sort. When I have an idea I move, for a short period at least, into a peculiar half-world from which my family are excluded (one day I must sit down with them and see if they’ve noticed). As I begin to get to know my characters I begin to think like them.

When I stop and think about it, I’m not actually sure that this instinctive approach is the best one for me. The main drawback is that I’m so busy living in the heads of my main characters that I don’t really have a lot of time to look at them from the outside. As a result I find that my minor characters are generally better described in physical terms, even if they aren’t always as fully-fleshed as they could be from an emotional point of view.

To combat this I have to be quite firm with myself. At the end of my first draft I have to take my main characters and look at them from outside. Having them look in a mirror is no use because they see what they want to see, not what’s there. (Like the rest of us.) And a suggestion from my friend and fellow blogger Jenny that I should write a description of them from their point of view, while it may suit some, didn’t work for me.

Jenny, I did try. At one level I was both surprised and disappointed that I couldn’t manage to benefit from this when it works so well for others but when I tried to work out why I realised it’s linked to this in-head approach. Though I write from the character’s viewpoint I also need to look at them dispassionately, see them as someone who is emotionally engaged with them, positively or negatively, will see them — not as they see themselves.

I know that one of the key weaknesses of my writing is the external viewpoint. That’s something that comes from what i think of as the film-maker’s viewpoint. 

How do you approach your characters? In head or out? Can you combine the two? And please please please…give me some tips!

17 comments:

  1. Jennifer, I sympathise. I find it very hard to describe my main characters. Hoever, reading your post made me think. could we take our characters to people who would be expected to comment on them and build a picture for the writer's use. EG, the dentist, 'Have you chipped that front tooth?'

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    1. Useful suggestion Anne! Like jennifer, I'm going to try it out.

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  2. Thanks Anne - that's an excellent idea. I'll try it and see if it works.

    I was just reading an old novel I'd forgotten about and realised I don't describe my heroine in it at all. Not even the colour of her hair... :(

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  3. Jennifer, I write the same way, by being inside my characters' heads as I write about them. Because of this, I find writing in first person easier than writing in third person. But, a big disadvantage is that I often discover that my characters are not sufficiently differentiated from each other -- sometimes they come across almost like clones of each other.

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    1. I like the first person too, and I expect my reason is the same as yours. But I only ever have one PoV in the first person. The second and subsequent are always third ( or have been to date).

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  4. I have the same problem, Jennifer. When I had a mentor for a time - which was really useful - she pointed out I had never described my male character. When I did go back and add a description she thought he didn't sound very attractive!

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    1. I don't quite know why we struggle to see our characters, though. Surely it's fundamental?

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  5. Jennifer, I had never thought of this aspect of writing. And now I do I find I'm an 'inside the head' writer like you. Your thoughts have given me a (probably much-needed) perspective on why some characters work and some don't. How to fix that is the next problem...

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    1. I think there's something to be said for both approaches. I'd love to hear form an 'outside the head' writer about whether they have problems of their own

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  6. I never said it was easy, Jennifer! But often it's the discrepancy between how the character sees themselves and how others see them that throws up conflict.

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    1. That's a very good point. Maybe in that case I need to distance myself from my characters and write them up from the point of view of somebody different - someone who know them, but not too well. I might try that...

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  7. All very interesting - not sure which I am at the moment! Will need to think about this, although I do tend to visualise everything as I'm writing but I also like to get inside the characters' head.

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    1. Maybe you have ht best of both worlds, Rosemary!

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    2. I think I'm a bit of both, Jennifer. I've never tried writing a novel using the first person - I'm sure this puts a different slant on your approach. Your post, though, has given me pause for thought.

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    3. Thanks Joan. I'm instinctively drawn to the first person but I know some people dislike it because it can be restrictive. And I think showing the main characters in a certain way is a particualr example of that.

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  8. I find I'm changing.....I used to be the latter, but was given the tip to write a novel with a view to it being a film at some stage, and - therefore - to try and visualize it in scenes. So, these days that's what I do, but then go back over doing the internal dialogue bit.....good post. And apologies to the others for missing things.....lots been going on chez Mitchelmore and I've had to duck out of things for a few weeks. Have FB'd and Tweeted this, though...:)

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  9. Thanks Linda. Do you prefer one approach to the other?

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