I am not my character.

In Tristan Poehlmann’s February 25th blog post, he said:

. . . If we aren’t honest with ourselves and with our audience, our characters don’t matter. They become stand-ins for our own beliefs, fantasies, and realities. They don’t exist on their own terms. They don’t feel their emotions or achieve their goals–they feel our emotions and achieve our goals. Who they are, or might have been, ceases to exist. Characters come to us with stories to tell. If we don’t write these stories around the truths of these characters, then we aren’t honestly telling their stories.

In this insightful post Tristan discussed Tarantino’s inability to inhabit his character (Django) and do him justice, and cautioned writers against doing the same. Sometimes after I read hearty stuff like this and take in the key points, my mind starts spinning off in all sorts of  directions, making a whole bunch of other applications. This time, my mind spun off into a variation I see a lot of in my own writing, especially in the early draft stages. It is a conundrum that locks me right up and is no good at all for my creative output: where do I end, and my characters begin?

It seems to me that writing fiercely is all about being incredibly open to anything that might appear on the page. All the raw emotions, all the crazy sidetracks and detours your brain takes when you are trying to tell that story. Some of what appears on the page is real and true to your character. And some of it – let’s face it – is your own crap. And when you’re being open like that, you might need to do some sorting: what, on that page, is your crap, and what actually belongs to your character?

My writer-friend Mary Pleiss and I were griping about the perception some non-writers have of our characters – that they must be us in some form, be venting our baggage, be stand-ins for our own histories. We looked at each other and said, in unison, “I am not my character!” and it quickly became our inside joke. The thing is, sometimes I need to say this line to myself not because it’s true. Sometimes I need to say it to myself because there’s a danger that it ISN’T true. Because my own stuff does get thrown on to the page. Sometimes I do let my own crap take over my characters.

When Tristan cautioned writers about this very thing, he concluded,

It’s OK if that happens, but then we need to figure out whose story we are actually telling. Is it a character we thought was secondary? Is it our perception of what we would do if we were that character? If so, we need to be honest about that. We need to rethink. We need to rewrite.

If we can’t live inside a character’s head, then we are not doing them a favor in trying to write their story.

Bottom line: I think it’s inevitable that our own stuff is going to get thrown in with our characters, especially in the early stages of our writing. We need to be honest with ourselves about that, but not let it hold us back or lock us up. Instead, we need to get to know our characters better.

How can we go about this? I am reminded of some direction my writer-friend Graeme Burk gave me when I was having this crisis a few months back.* He said (and I quote him loosely here), “What about your character is different from you? Where does she live? Who is in her family? What does she like? What doesn’t she like? Think of all the ways she is not you.” What Graeme was suggesting was pretty much the same thing Tristan concluded: you’ve got to live inside your character’s head in order to write their story.

So I’m going to stop worrying about that conundrum of where I end and where my character begins. Instead, Mary, let me suggest an addendum to our mantra:

I am not my character. I will develop her so fully that I couldn’t possibly be.

If I keep my focus on that, it will be her story and not mine on the page.

* writer-friends are indispensible. They’ll pull you in off the ledge. A shout out to Tristan, Mary, Graeme, Ingrid (my most-recent ledge-puller-inner) and all my Dystropians!

14 Responses to “I am not my character.”

  1. Mary

    You are the actual best, Jen. I love how you pull this all together and make it something so much more than the sum of its parts. That’s kind of a long mantra, but I don’t want to lose a word of it! 🙂

  2. Tristan

    Yes, I totally agree, Jen! Writing, especially first drafts, is such a personally fraught process. I think this is exactly what it’s meant to work toward–being self-aware enough to find the parts of your MC that you understand intimately, but also the parts of yourself that you don’t need to project onto your MC.

  3. Sheryl Scarborough

    Nice way to make a distinction between the puppet and the puppet master and a great way to test if our characters are developed fully enough. If they are there should be no room for us.

  4. Suzanne

    This is a great post Jen! I think it’s an issue most writers deal with and I love your solution because I think you’re absolutely right. Developing a character that is a complete, separate individual is challenging, but so rewarding.

  5. Peter L.

    Legend, you’re slowly taking over the internet with these inspiring posts. Thanks!

  6. L. Marie

    Jen, I agree with you and Tristan. I often have trouble separating myself—the way I put things—from my characters. I need to allow them to breathe on the page, to be who they are.

  7. ingridsundberg

    This is a fantastic post Jen!

    I think writing is a lot like acting. You have to tap into your emotional well to make sure the character can feel, to give them breath and life, so you can feel it along with them. But you aren’t that character. You only transfer emotion, substitute it, so you can imagine what your character’s are going through. Uta Hagen talks a lot about this in her book “Respect for Acting” and I found it really helpful.

    • Jen Bailey

      Thanks for sharing that title, Ingrid! I think that it is critical that we tap into our emotions when we write – that’s how we create vivid characters. Perhaps what is important is seeing the emotion as separate from the event it was related to when we experienced it in our own life, so that we don’t get lost in the muck of it all. Looking forward to seeing what Uta Hagen has to say about it.


Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)