Personally, I think that developing a character in fiction must have something in common with developing your character. Your fiction writing character that is. Here I go again, spewing my two cents’ worth.
If you’re like me, you spend inordinate amounts of time staring at the blinking cursor or the blank page, or even the blank line where everything stopped. It’s like a cliff. You want to jump off and fly but you’re certain you’ll fall into a pit of vipers. The vipers are actually the critics you’ve created (well, you’re a writer, after all, and you can create anything, especially things you don’t want to create, like images of the whole world reading over your shoulder and laughing or at least politely rolling their eyes. “Your writing stinks,” they/you say in unapologetic unison).
You can understand why writers have this problem more than other artists. After all, we have the capacity to create tens, even hundreds of personalities not our own. We have that thing going on that other people pay huge sums of money to get rid of: voices inside our heads. And not just voices. Images, words, and a million observations and sensations. I don’t know about yours, but my mind is a tornado of images all the time. And not all of them are pleasant. Especially not the ones that you need when you imagine conflict, when you get medieval on your characters and put them through the worst things you can possibly imagine. You want them to suffer as much as you suffer, right? All that horrible crap you went through in high school, in this or that relationship, on that minimum-wage job under that minimum-brained boss? That’s what you’re supposed to do, as a fiction writer. Create trouble and problems and vipers. So, if you can imagine your characters going through 3D hell (eerily similar to your own), you can imagine people losing their lunch when they read whatever it is you manage to put on the page.
But (and this is where art comes in) art means both imagination and limitation. You shape your imagination with your art.
I have been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened. -Mark Twain
But that’s the topic of another post. See, all your life you’ve been told that you must compete and impress. You must out-do anything anyone’s ever done. There’s this big fat notion in your head that the public is breathlessly waiting for your brilliance to shine forth from the scraps you cobbled together into a masterpiece. And in the meantime fear, self-doubt, and self-loathing are eating you alive. You can hear the hum in the engine room of your creativity shutting down around you. The lights go out one by one. Paralysis sets in. You’re convinced your writing does stink, that you can’t write, that you’re not a writer. Time to go pay the bills and see the dentist.
Because. Every time you sit down to write you just know you’re going to fail before you even begin. Before you even touch the keyboard or pen to paper you need your writing to be amazing right out of the box, because that’s what they’ve (those mingy voices that live inside your head) always told you. But all those famous authors out there did it and keep doing it over and over again. Why can’t you? So you scribble something that might pass for acceptable. But as soon as you get it down, the self-defense shutters go up. You can’t seem to exit the intellectual, reasoning mode.
That mode works if you’re a philosopher or an accountant, but it’s the worst mode to be in for a fiction writer. A fiction writer needs to be irrational, unreasonable, dumb. That is, a fiction writer needs learn how to get into the trance state, the dream state, the What if state (it’s a broad landscape). A fiction writer needs to dwell in the basement, the body, not the attic, not the rational mind.
So. What can you do to coax yourself into the basement? Even debasement (as in “lowering the value of”)? How about lowering your expectations. Try it.
- Lock yourself deep into your writing space, whatever that means to you, mental and physical. Somewhere away from distractions (like the Internet).
- Don’t let anyone, and I mean anyone, read your work (unless, of course, you want to torture yourself).
- Forget the whole shiny idea of publication. Put it out of your mind.
- Let your imagination run crazy-wild and follow it with your words, even if it makes you dizzy, even if neither your imagination nor your words are any good. Who even cares? You’re writing for you now.
- After you’ve tried lowering your expectations, wallow in the freedom that comes and takes your writing into whole new directions.