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I’m Not Above Spying, Part 2

Photo by The Real Estreya via Flickr Creative Commons

My first post on Writer Unboxed was eight years ago next month! In that post, I wrote about how I spy and snoop on people around me [1] to get story ideas. Now, the long-awaited sequel.

In Part 1, I gave the basics: How to successfully gather information from people and things around you, and the tools you need to do so (iPhone or recording device, paper and pen, etc.). In this post, I’ll make it even simpler. I’ll help you spy on yourself and your nearest and dearest. In short, all you need is your family, yourself, and your inner thoughts!

Let me explain.

I’ve been going to a therapist to help me get back on track with my writing. If you’ve been reading my posts, you know I’ve stumbled a bit and have had trouble finding my way with my writing. I’ve felt lost. One of the things my therapist has had me do is a kind of “expressive therapy.” She helped me identify “characters” inside of me—parts of my identity from now and when I was younger—then had me name them. And write about them. And imagine conversations between them. Her theory is that some of these parts of me that may have been useful in the past or even now are currently either holding me back or creating problems for me in my creative life.

The Characters Within

Using this method, I find myself with a small internal cast of characters about whom I can easily learn more (because they are all me!). They help me create characters for my stories. Here, without too much self-exposure, I’ll go through a few of them. (Names may have been changed to protect the innocent.)

Baby Julia. My father left when I was a toddler—I only saw him twice more before he died—and I have spent my life figuring out how to deal with his abandonment. Enter Baby Julia. She is someone who is always searching. Always wary. She is both afraid of being abandoned but also feels a need for reassurance and stability.

The Rebel. My mother remarried when I was five, and after that we moved a lot, for a while every year. When I was in fourth grade, we finally moved to our “permanent home,” but then my parents began to take us on multi-year research trips out of the country. While it was amazing to live in places like Belize and Kenya, it also took a toll. I felt disenfranchised from my friends and schoolmates. The Rebel ran away in Kenya. She almost made it home to California. She got in all kinds of other trouble, too.

The Middle Child. She grew up between two brothers, one older but very close in age, one much younger. Both demanded a lot of time and energy from her parents in different ways, and The Middle Child learned to keep her mouth shut and her feelings to herself. She acted out in ways not easily detected. She was highly secretive and passively aggressive in getting her needs met.

Your Nearest and Dearest

Leaving the psyche, it’s possible to follow my inner characters to the outer world—to people in my immediate family who helped create my inner selves—each of which is a wealth of characteristics in his or her own right.

Older and Younger are my two brothers. They are joined by Step—a brother I’ve met only three times in my life. Each of these men are rich in possibility. I don’t need to leave the comfort of my couch to spy on them. I have my memories, my feelings, and in many cases their very own words in letters and other ephemera.

Along with these three boys-turned-men, are Bio Dad—the man who abandoned me—who I see through Baby Julia’s eyes, through sixteen-year old The Rebel—and that gives me at least two characters for the price of one.

Lurking in the shadows nearby is the ever-present Mother who first protected then suffocated Baby Julia and ultimately attempted to control The Rebel. She used every tool in her vast toolbox. Mother might give birth to a character who could fry an innocent bystander to a crisp. Given another set of better circumstances, Mother could become a savior or provide enlightenment.

Finally, entering as a stranger, eventually becoming a regular, is the character of New Dad—the man who raised me. This man, aloof at times, supportive at others, might find his way into any stoic character—hero or cad.

Try Not to Judge

To try the same exercise I went through, think about the aspects of yourself that seem to be either holding you back or creating conflict in your creative endeavors. These parts of you are the things you can label as characters. Try naming them. And talking to them or writing about them. I should warn you, spying on your inner characters requires a great deal of introspection and sometimes bravery to face past demons. Like me, you may want to do this with a professional.

I was skeptical when I first heard about this technique. Particularly when I had conversations or wrote them between myself and one or more of my characters, but this technique has been incredibly useful for character and story development in addition to helping understand my current struggles. All the characters within you or your immediate family are vast fields of possibilities. No need to follow people at the grocery store or take photos of strangers, just open your family album or wander the hallways of your mind and watch the movies you’ve recorded.

The point of this exercise is not to find fault with (or glorify) yourself or your family members. Rather, I am suggesting that we each have everything we need within ourselves to do both character development and analysis and give depth to our characters.

By using what’s within, in addition to what’s outside, I mine what is mine. I develop the novel within my mind. In a very simple example, maybe The Rebel will actually make it to California. To make sense of the world in a way that makes sense only to me, maybe BioDad is tracked down by BabyJulia and she finds out why he left. But more importantly, in the process I may find a way to get back to who I want to be and what I want to do—write.

Who are your inner “characters” and those within your inner circle? What are the ways you can mine them? How might that help you on your writing journey?

About Julia Munroe Martin [2]

Julia Munroe Martin [3] (@jmunroemartin [4]) is a writer and blogger who lives in an old house in southern coastal Maine. Julia's other passion is photography, and if she's not writing at the dining room table or a local coffeeshop, you'll likely find her on the beach or dock taking photos. Julia writes The Empty Nest Can Be Murder mystery series as J. M. Maison.