Getting to Know Your Characters

Some might call me crazy, but I’m beginning to inhabit my characters’ lives.

One character is a twelve-year-old girl, living on a boat in Chicago, walking between Monroe Harbor, the AON Center (where the family’s P.O. box is), and Lake Point Tower (where she babysits).  Today, I spent the morning walking between these three locations.  I had a pedometer to measure how many steps it takes to get from one place to another, as well as a watch to time the journeys.  Some of my expectations were right on, but others surprised me.  Like how long it would take to get from one particular location to another.  I also noticed things like One Way signs, goose poop to avoid at all costs, and Chicago’s new River Walk — things that certainly wouldn’t have jumped to mind in the vacuum of my office. Getting out into the fresh air, imagining I was her, gave me a rejuvenated perspective on what she’s feeling, hearing, and seeing (or avoiding stepping in). With pen and notebook in hand, I imagined I was Maeve.   Some things I jotted down were:

The number of stories in an apartment building she stares at every day.

The price of a cheeseburger at the fancy grocery/deli she passes on her way to her babysitting job.

The way cars driving on Lake Shore Drive sound when heard from Lower Wacker Drive (like a heartbeat).

The number of people walking around with headphones for music or cellular phones.

The bright orange/red seats in the Pritzker Pavillion when it’s empty.

The fact that a mini putt putt golf course (which costs $$) is located directly across the street from Grant Park (which is free).  It gave me some ideas on how to frame my character’s attitudes about living with less materialism.

A Monkey Fist Knot

I also got into another character’s head this week when I taught myself how to tie a specific (and somewhat complicated) sailing knot*.  I equipped myself with a knot book, a long piece of rope, and the determination to learn this thing.  After all, if I can’t teach myself at 41-years-old, a pre-teen girl might not be able to, either.  I wanted to know how long it would take to learn, or how frustrating it might be.  I needed to know what goes in to tying this knot.  It took me two hours to master it…I’m not kidding.  What I didn’t realize was how badly my hands would ache after all that manipulation.  Or that my nails would be shredded from untying my frequent mistakes. I’ve come to understand that writing the line, “Rachel taught herself to tie the knot” has no place in my book.  I’ll now be able to relate a more true and vivid experience to my readers after inhabiting my character.

I highly recommend inhabiting  your characters, even in some small, everyday way.  If you’re stuck, it just might be the boost you need.I have to say, it felt like important, informative “work” diving into the psyche of my characters.  I feel like I know them more deeply.

Though we create our characters, there’s certainly a lot they can teach us, if we just let them.

* If you’re wondering what a Monkey Fist Knot is, and what it’s used for, click here:  http://www.realknots.com/knots/faqknot.htm

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2 responses to “Getting to Know Your Characters

  1. Great post, Christine! I love that kind of exercise.

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