Letting Your Characters In
by Victoria Strauss
In writing…not so much.
I first started getting serious about writing when I was 17, and decided—more or less on a whim—to write a novel. The plotting, world-building, and action flowed pretty easily. But from the beginning I had trouble portraying my characters’ emotions.
It was hard for me to figure out exactly how my characters should respond to situations and problems (I’m not talking about obvious reactions such as grief or pain, but the nuances of how different individuals react to different circumstances, and how those reactions express personality). It was challenging to express those emotional responses in words. And it was really, really difficult to write those important internal monologues where characters mull things over or figure things out.
Being me, I tried to deal with my problem analytically. If Character W, with personality traits X and history Y, suddenly finds herself in situation Z, how is she going to respond? What will she feel? What will she do? It helped, but I still struggled.
You may already have figured out where I was going wrong. But I was clueless—until a friend gave one of my stories to his mother, a professional novelist. She had some nice things to say about my prose style--but she also commented that my writing was very cool and distant. “You shield yourself emotionally in your writing,” she told me. “You’re afraid to open up. You don’t make yourself vulnerable to your characters.”
I was still new to writing and hadn’t learned how to accept criticism, and her comment made me pretty angry. “I do too open up,” I thought. “I’m passionate about my writing! I put my whole heart into it!”
But her words stuck with me. Was I trying to protect myself by not engaging directly with my characters’ emotions? Was that why I had such trouble writing about them? Could it be that my analytical method, which attempted to get at my characters’ feelings by looking at them from the outside like pawns on a chessboard, was the wrong approach? If so, how could I change? How could I put myself inside my characters’ heads, behind their eyes, and experience directly what they were feeling?
As it happened, thinking about all of this coincided with an editor’s interest in my first novel, The Lady of Rhuddesmere. The editor liked the setting and the story, but she felt the main character—a 15-year-old boy named Geraint—wasn’t accessible enough or likable enough for a teen audience. Would I consider re-writing the book in first person?
This was a scary proposition. Such a drastic revision—and in a narrative form I’d never attempted before. But of course I said yes. I’d been trying to get published for nearly eight years, and this was the first serious interest anyone had shown.
The re-write took me about six months, and was a crash course in getting inside a character’s head. It wasn’t just a matter of substituting “I” for “he.” Writing not just about Geraint, but in Geraint’s own voice, completely changed the tone and flow of the book. It forced me to open myself up to Geraint in a way I’d never done with any of my characters before: to make myself vulnerable, as my friend’s mother had said.
For the first time I experienced the intense involvement with a character that any novelist will recognize (and any non-novelist will suspect is a sign of schizophrenia)—where you wake up in the middle of the night with their voice speaking inside your head, where their pain or joy shadows or brightens your own life, where finishing the book is like saying goodbye to your best friend.
Re-writing The Lady of Rhuddesmere didn’t magically make opening myself to my characters easy. To this day, I have to work at that. But it completely re-oriented me as a writer. I learned more about craft from doing it than I have at any time before or since. Just as important, I was ready to learn, which I might not have been a few years earlier.
I’ve never written another novel in first person. It’s not a narrative form I’m drawn to. But thanks to my friend’s mother and that drastic revision of my first novel, I do think about my characters in first person.
And they still talk to me in the middle of the night.
About the Author
Victoria Strauss is the author of eight novels for adults and young adults. Her latest is Passion Blue (Amazon Children’s Publishing 2012), a historical fantasy set in Renaissance Italy that was named one of Kirkus Reviews’ Best Teen Books of 2012. She’s also co-founder of Writer Beware, a publishing industry watchdog group. She lives in Amherst, Massachusetts.
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About the Book
Be sure you know your true heart’s desire, or you may find yourself surprised by what you receive.
This is the warning the Astrologer-Sorcerer gives Giulia when she pays him to create a magical talisman for her. The scorned illegitimate daughter of a Milanese nobleman, Giulia is determined to defy the dire fate predicted by her horoscope, and use the talisman to claim what she believes is her heart’s desire: true love and a place where she belongs–not likely prospects for a girl about to be packed off to the cloistered world of a convent.
But the convent of Santa Marta is full of surprises. There are strict rules, long hours of work, and spiteful rivalries…but there’s also friendship, and the biggest surprise of all: a workshop of female artists who produce paintings of astonishing beauty, using a luminous blue mixed from a secret formula: Passion blue. Yet as Giulia begins to learn the mysteries of the painter’s craft, a forbidden romance beckons her down a path of uncertainty and danger. She is haunted by the sorcerer’s warning, and by a question: does she really know the true compass of her heart?
Set in Renaissance Italy, this richly imagined novel about a girl’s daring journey towards self-discovery transports readers into a fascinating, exotic world where love, faith, and art inspire passion–of many different hues.
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