Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how many people I have living in my head. Characters, I mean. Fictional ones. Some of them I’ve been getting to know for more than four years now, others I’ve just met.
A few weeks ago I was talking to one of my students about some characters from a story she’s writing, and halfway through my spiel on character development I realised how strange it might sound that I was asking her to let these people live in her head. She noticed my hesitation and called me on it, as teenagers are wont to do, and laughed a lot when I pointed out how crazy I sounded. I’m pretty sure she does think I’m mad (not just because I talk about people living in my head), but she seemed to understand what I was saying about character.
My characters get under my skin. I care about them
just almost as much as I do about people in real life. I see them in real-life people — a gesture here, a phrase there. But I don’t think any of my characters are based on a particular person. They become people in their own right.
I often get my students to do writing exercise to help them get to know their characters. I realised the other day that I’m very bad at actually doing these exercises myself. Oops.
One of my favourite character-writing exercises comes from the Voiceworks blog, Virgule.
Answer these questions about your character:
1. What is your character afraid of?
2. What does your character do to de-stress?
3. What makes your character angry?
4. Who was the last person your character talked to on the phone?
5. In what position does your character sleep?
Whenever I give this one to my students they laugh at the last question. Perhaps rightly so — it is an odd question. But odd probably because it’s such an intimate thing to know about someone. I don’t even know what position my brothers or my parents sleep in. I sleep on my back, one leg straight, the other bent so the knee falls out to the side; the hand of the straight leg rests on my belly, the hand of the bent leg out to the side. I don’t seem to have a preference for one side. How do you sleep?
I’ve been thinking a little about some of my characters, and how they might sleep. Have they always slept this way? Does their position change when someone else is in the bed with them? Why do that sleep like that?
And this is why I like this exercise so much. The answers often come automatically (given that these people really do seem to live inside my head), but they bring with them a bunch of other questions.