Haunted by Characters

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Paul Whybrow

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Jun 20, 2015
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Cornwall, UK
By entering the minds of the fictional characters that I create, I sometimes find them intruding into what I previously considered to be my private thought processes.

When I'm writing a novel in my Cornish Detective series, I become more aware than usual of how people I'm talking to respond to things I've said, looking for evasiveness, half-truths and deliberate lies. One of the villains that my detective protagonist hunted down, was a serial killer who'd been turned into an emotionless murderer through being forced to be a boy soldier at the age of 10. He hadn't developed any social interaction skills, other than operating as part of a war machine with his comrades, and taking lives had become a game to him—literally, for in peacetime he was playing an online role-play game in which real people were killed. Inhabiting his way of thinking was creepy, for I began to observe strangers as targets, working out how to eliminate them.

Just now, I'm in the mindset of a shell-shocked cavalry officer, making his way through a lawless terrain, anxious about ambush and keeping an eye on his food supplies. His wariness has crept into my life—the other day, I looked at the food tins in my store cupboard, working out how long they'd last me before I had to risk entering town to replenish my supplies.

Being other people, seeing them come to life on the computer screen, can take an author to strange places. I wrote about the thought processes of a five-year-old boy, who'd be abandoned in the countryside by his elderly kidnappers, who thought he'd be found quickly as it was close to a busy village. Instead, he made it through the streets unnoticed, planning to walk home, which he thought was just up the lane, though it was actually eight miles away. In writing this chapter, I revisited my own infant self, recalling a time when I got lost. In this way, I haunted myself!

I find myself emailing friends about my work in progress, talking about my characters as if they're real...I have very patient friends. :rolleyes:

Do any of you find your thoughts drifting towards the fictional world you've created, wondering how your character would tackle the tiresome housework that you should really be getting on with in the real world?

you-know-youre-a-writer-when-you-spend-so-much-time-with-your-characters-that-you-forget-how-to-interact-with-real-people-ff4ae.png
 
Don't worry, heh; no therapist has that power :)

I do see and hear them. I'd look a right loon if there was a secret camera while I was working on the goddamn thing; laughing, talking to myself LOTS and sometimes snivelling.

But I'm used to switching from daily/normal mode (what's normal?) to oracular mode and back again. One minute I'm serving casserole, the next sitting down with a total stranger to psychically investigate their question, and it could be anything. ANYTHING.
 
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When I started writing stories properly, I was about 11. I "became" whatever main character I was writing about. All very childlike, of course, but it was very odd. My behaviour and way of speaking to people would alter and I saw things from the character's perspective rather than my own and reacted to things as they would (arrogant, shy, forceful or quiet). By the age of about 15/16 some instinct kicked in and I knew I had to distance myself from who I created on the page and what was real or I'd go mad. Typical teenage angst, I guess. I do believe my characters are alive somewhere and I'm channelling their stories. But that's a whole other thread... :)
 
By entering the minds of the fictional characters that I create, I sometimes find them intruding into what I previously considered to be my private thought processes.

When I'm writing a novel in my Cornish Detective series, I become more aware than usual of how people I'm talking to respond to things I've said, looking for evasiveness, half-truths and deliberate lies. One of the villains that my detective protagonist hunted down, was a serial killer who'd been turned into an emotionless murderer through being forced to be a boy soldier at the age of 10. He hadn't developed any social interaction skills, other than operating as part of a war machine with his comrades, and taking lives had become a game to him—literally, for in peacetime he was playing an online role-play game in which real people were killed. Inhabiting his way of thinking was creepy, for I began to observe strangers as targets, working out how to eliminate them.

Just now, I'm in the mindset of a shell-shocked cavalry officer, making his way through a lawless terrain, anxious about ambush and keeping an eye on his food supplies. His wariness has crept into my life—the other day, I looked at the food tins in my store cupboard, working out how long they'd last me before I had to risk entering town to replenish my supplies.

Being other people, seeing them come to life on the computer screen, can take an author to strange places. I wrote about the thought processes of a five-year-old boy, who'd be abandoned in the countryside by his elderly kidnappers, who thought he'd be found quickly as it was close to a busy village. Instead, he made it through the streets unnoticed, planning to walk home, which he thought was just up the lane, though it was actually eight miles away. In writing this chapter, I revisited my own infant self, recalling a time when I got lost. In this way, I haunted myself!

I find myself emailing friends about my work in progress, talking about my characters as if they're real...I have very patient friends. :rolleyes:

Do any of you find your thoughts drifting towards the fictional world you've created, wondering how your character would tackle the tiresome housework that you should really be getting on with in the real world?

you-know-youre-a-writer-when-you-spend-so-much-time-with-your-characters-that-you-forget-how-to-interact-with-real-people-ff4ae.png
Hi there, I'm new to the site - but this is very interesting to me. I am an actor first and foremost, and in that school of thought, the lines are always blurry. If you are going to behave truthfully within imaginary circumstances, well... you have to behave truthfully! And that is going to infect your regular life, for better or worse. The character within this set of imaginary circumstances might do housework differently than you, but if you made them and therefore the way they do it, or don't, it is just a part of you that isn't used all the time. I guess what I mean, is that it is still you. It most certainly is.
And while creating these characters we are learning more about ourselves ultimately. The bits of ourselves that we think about but don't necessarily act upon regularly, become interesting... And these ideas become characters... It's still us... It's one brain that has a hand and holds a pen, or chooses to put fingers on a keyboard. That brain might explore things the body it's attached to doesn't, in a regular day to day scenario - but that doesn't mean the thoughts didn't come from the same place. If you wrote it and are thinking about it, well... then it's you. Embrace it. What a lovely cathartic experience. We don't have the opportunity to be five year old boys in our normal day to day lives. It's a gift! :)
 
You've highlighted one of the appeals of writing and acting. I was reminded of the tale told about Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier on the set of Marathon Man, where Hoffman was trying a method acting approach to convey his character's exhaustion, by staying awake for 72 hours himself, to which Olivier suggested, "Why don't you just try acting?"

Hoffman elaborates on this story in this short and pithy video clip, which also contains an explanation of why actors act (and, by extension, why writers write):



One of the problems with skilful acting and engrossing writing is when some gullible members of the public fail to separate artifice from reality. Actors who play villains love doing so, as it's so much more fun to be evil than a boring goody-two-shoes, but they run the risk of being typecast and disliked. In writing, we may be thought of creating stories that reflect exactly who we are—that we have those homicidal thoughts, drink enough booze to drown a whale and regularly indulge in kinky sex sessions! In this way, our fictional characters could haunt us, becoming an albatross around our neck. Some authors have tried to kill off their most successful character, such as Conan Doyle who wrote the death of Sherlock Holmes, only to be forced into resurrecting him by readers clamouring for more adventures of their favourite sleuth.
 
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