What’s The Relationship Between A Writer & Their Characters?

Here I go again, treading into dangerous territory. Last post, I put my thoughts about the proper function of fiction on the line. Now, I’m going to expose my beliefs about the writing process itself.

I’m calling this dangerous territory because the word “danger” comes from roots that mean the “power of a lord or master”. And, the last thing I am is some kind of lord, master, guru, or expert. So, putting my thoughts and feelings about writers and their characters out into the communal space of the Internet is dangerous because it might seem like I think you should believe what I say. In the last post, I mentioned that my thoughts would probably make some folks want to argue with me and it will probably happen this time to. Good thing I’m brave 🙂

So, let’s get to it–writers have characters. Where do writers get those characters? Why do so many writers talk about their characters as if they were real? And, even more amazing, how in the world could an otherwise rational writer say, with heart-felt conviction, that one of their characters made them change what they intended to write? If you’re not a writer and don’t know anything about writers, you’ll either have to take my word that writers really think their characters can change their minds or do a bit of Googling…

I should qualify what I’m talking about just a bit. Obviously, we’re considering fiction writers and, maybe obviously, we’re dealing with serious writers–the kind that can’t not write; those people who risk their social lives by continuing to engage in an activity that seems miraculous to non-writers. You can tell a serious writer, no matter the maturity of their craft, because they refuse to give up on their writing no matter how difficult it becomes.

I want to quote Sonia Simone here because this determination of writers to persevere comes from what’s called a growth mindset; and, in just a minute, I’ll be bringing in a real master/guru (who some folks would call exceedingly dangerous) to explain the source of a growth mindset.

Says Sonia: “All babies and small toddlers have a growth mindset. If you’ve ever watched a baby learn to walk and talk, you’ve seen the growth mindset in action. They get frustrated, sure. But giving up is never an option, even for a moment. They’re driven by that quest for mastery. No one fails to learn to walk or talk because we get depressed and think it’s too hard or we aren’t ‘talented’ enough.”

No, I don’t think all serious writers are babies, though they do seem to have a deep childlikeness at times. The reason for the quote is that writers have to struggle with characters to create what we read. They don’t just get born with some weird talent to create fiction that seems real–they work very hard at it, sometimes fight with their characters, usually have to change and grow personally because the characters are spookily right.

So, where in the hell do these characters come from? I believe they live in what Carl Jung (the potentially “dangerous” guru I mentioned) called the Collective Unconscious. For now, let’s just say the characters live way, way deep inside the writer’s mind. What’s truly weird about this character-creation process is that, even when a fiction writer “borrows” traits from people they know or even puts a real-life person in their work, the final character revealed is unique and clearly their own person.

How does a serious writer live anything like a normal life when things like this are going on in their heads? Some don’t live anything like a normal life. Some “control” the effects of relating to their characters with drugs. Some take refuge in spiritual or psychological realms that “explain” the process. Some create brilliantly for a short time then flame out like a meteor…

If you’re a writer, please share your thoughts and feelings in the comments…

Last thought: Watch a writer take a photo of a criminal and create their own character from it 🙂
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