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The Science of Creating Authentic Characters

http://nfpatoday.blog.nfpa.org/ [1]

I had the extreme pleasure of meeting Meg Rosoff (one of our contributors here at Writer Unboxed) in Salem at the un-con. I was intrigued by her discussion about hot and cold spots in the brain, the emotional poignancy that resides in those zones, and how to access them. Throughness, she called it; an opening of pathways between the conscious and subconscious mind. As writers, we need to tap into these centers to channel authentic emotion into our characters on the page. An interesting concept. But while I think tapping into our own emotional wells and developing our emotional IQ is a good start, I’d like to take it a step further.

We must expand our understanding of human behavior to create authentic characters.

It’s what I like to call the “science of character writing.” Writers are scientists of human nature. We observe behavior patterns and body language, and often the nearly undetectable movements that reflect what happens just below the surface or deep within our minds and hearts. Without this understanding of human nature, our characters come off as stereotypical, flat, and unbelievable. Some of us are born with an innate ability to read others, to magically peel back the layers of defenses and quirks to see what is really brewing in someone’s mind. Some of us live more in our own heads and struggle with this ability. But we can all hone this inclination to create authentic characters.

How do we explore the science of character writing in a concrete way that translates to the page?

We use tools at our fingertips—psychology studies, personality inventories, and body typing to help us build upon our natural base of understanding and creative spring. People-typing, CHARACTER-TYPING, is as scientific as it is deeply creative and intuitive, emotional. Take a look at a few tools I’ve used.

I’ve noticed many people turn their noses up at personality inventories. They fiercely believe they’re an individual that is beyond classification. After all, how could a book place seven billion people into nine personality types? But I say this. We’re animals and our personality types are another means of classifying our species into subsets. I realize I’m oversimplifying, but if you combine this list of tools—Enneagram, Myers Briggs, Ayurvedic body typing, gender constructs (or the dissolution of them), among others, you get a fairly composite picture of someone—of a character.

Don’t underestimate the power of true study and all of that profiling. It’s the beginning of AWARENESS, SELF-EVOLUTION, and THROUGHNESS.

That being said, we ARE still individuals. Our characters will have their own pains, their own life experiences, ambitions, and neuroses. Nuance will color a character’s lens and, therefore your narrative. Yes, the tools are useful, but natural instinct and the all-mysterious inspiration that bubbles up from years of stewing will lend true authenticity to your characters as well, how you view their arcs, and ultimately how you portray them on the page.

Am I always so scientific in my approach? After years of reading books like these, and studying cultural geography (the way people interact with and shape their environment), much of it has become integrated into the way I view the people around me. Scientific? Maybe. Useful? Certainly. I never write a character without dissecting their psychological profile first; their fears and dreams, motivations and goals, that which haunts them and inspires them. Do my characters still surprise me? Always. The crystalline, magical moments when the muse shares her wisdom are incomparable. But with more understanding, I believe you leave the corridor open far more often for throughness to occur.

So I say this. Step into the shoes of a scientist. Gather information. Build your base of understanding. Map your characters before you begin (for you plotters), and for pantsers, when you hit a speed bump in drafting, step back and assess who you’re really creating as a character. Let all of this information saturate your psyche to mix with your sacred source of creativity, and watch your characters take on a life of their own.

What tools do you use to differentiate your characters? Would you call yourself a scientist of human behavior?

About Heather Webb [2]

Heather Webb is the international bestselling author of historical novels Becoming Josephine, Rodin’s Lover, The Phantom’s Apprentice, and Last Christmas in Paris: A Novel of WWI. In 2015, Rodin’s Lover was a Goodread’s Top Pick, and in 2017, Last Christmas in Paris became a Globe & Mail Bestseller. To date, Heather’s books have sold in multiple countries worldwide, received national starred reviews, and have been featured in print media including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Entertainment Weekly, and more.As a freelance editor, Heather has helped over two dozen writers sign with agents, and go on to sell at market. She may also be found teaching craft courses at a local college. When not writing, Heather feeds her cookbook addiction, geeks out on history and pop culture, and looks for excuses to head to the other side of the world.